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Monday, January 20, 2003
The ants and the cuckoo

A friend of mine lives in a convenient but otherwise undistinguished suburb of Melbourne. He rents a detached, rather decrepit house in a quiet suburban street and lives a slightly hand-to-mouth existence. When things were financially rather grim several months ago, he took a few short-term lodgers, with his landlord's consent, of course.

His first few tenants proved to be delightful, considerate and co-operative. My friend came to see subletting as a sort of safety net. Perhaps he would continue to get a similar series of people wanting accommodation addresses and lost souls wanting bolt-holes from rocky relationships, he thought. Then, a friend of a friend asked him to accommodate ‘a character’.

Rather unwisely, the friend agreed verbal terms with his new tenant who promptly proved to be your classic house-mate from hell: he never passed on messages, he got up at five in the morning and made enough noise to waken the rest of the household and was generally quite boorish. For example, when spoken to reasonably, he would throw furniture about if he felt he was being criticised. Because he was a very large person and my friend is small and gentle, this had an intimidatory effect. In an effort to help, I abandoned my stay at the Essendon Ritz and moved in for a few days - by invitation, of course.

This large, noxious individual was also studying estate management and it was fairly clear that he knew his legal rights so it was going to be a problem getting rid of him - the law seemed to be very much on the tenant’s side. But then there was a felicitous turn of events.

The house, like many, is periodically infested with ants. As we all know, if you keep the place clean and do not leave anything sweet around, the ants soon depart, especially if you put a sweet decoy somewhere else… (I can see what you are beginning to think but you are wrong.)

The cuckoo, while apparently keeping his room satisfactorily tidy, often took food in there and never cleaned or hoovered. The ants obviously treated his messiness as a food source and infested his room with predictable results: it was not long before the furniture was flying again but my friend did not dare suggest that ants do not invade ‘uninvited’. That would have been too much of a personal criticism. But the nettle had to be grasped, somehow.

One evening, my friend said that, for several reasons, he would like the cuckoo to leave. He explained his reasons carefully, relating them to changed circumstances rather than to personal loathing. The predictable uproar came and the cuckoo said, knowing his rights, that he intended to stay for six months. In the face of such truculence, my friend said that he was therefore giving one month’s notice. To gild the lily, the cuckoo said that he was going to reduce the rent he was paying because I was there. He was also going to pay in arrears, instead of in advance in accordance with the original agreement.

This opened the way for some serious action: my friend wrote to the cuckoo formally saying that it would be a good idea if he were to move as quickly as possible because the lease was about to come to an end. (It was, too). He also wrote that the rent reduction was not acceptable and that the unilateral decision to pay in arrears was ‘very serious’. The cuckoo produced a long, rambling and irrelevant reply, that had obviously taken him all night to compose, saying ‘I know my rights’. My friend once more tried to reason with the cuckoo but he persisted in claiming a rent reduction because I was there. ‘Good,’ I thought.

When the cuckoo started threatening to lose his temper and began shouting wildly, my friend faded into the background, and I drew my 172-year old frame up to its full height and shouted back at the cuckoo’s breastbone, advancing on him all the time until we were by the open front door. Trying to keep a straight face, but expecting all the time to be assaulted, I argued in as many ways as I could at the top of my voice, that my being there made no difference to his rental agreement with my friend - he should still pay the agreed amount in advance. (By the way, some of the neighbours had been forewarned about the problem so I hoped that they were enjoying things…)

Shouting ‘You stay; you pay!’ at the top of his voice and threatening to lose his temper in a big way, the cuckoo-bully shifted his position not an inch. Inwardly, I was delighted. And yes, someone - my friend, actually - phoned the police on the grounds of the cuckoo’s threatening behaviour towards me. You see, it now became a breach of the peace issue and came outside landlord-tenant law.

The police arrived and were magnificent. They took the cuckoo aside and, from what I could hear, he carried on shooting himself in the foot: he complained that my friend had misled him about the length of the head-lease (untrue), that the sublet was illegal (also untrue), and that he ‘knew his rights’. The police said that he was coming over as aggressive and that it might be better if he were to move, anyway, no matter what he thought his rights were. They got him to agree to move out the next day but, in the event, he moved the very same day - ‘…because of the atmosphere,’ he said.

After he had gone, my friend and I could only sit about and grin at each other at our joint success: it was a fine team effort. Yes, we had a small celebration until quite late. My friend hoovered the empty room as though finally expunging the memory of a succession of nasty experiences. Having gone to my friend’s house hoping to help to deal with the cuckoo, I now knew something of the catharsis felt by the contractor after a hit. Or is that too dramatic a comparison?

Our friends the ants, as I understand it, have gone and not returned.

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