On Thursday our building's fire alarm went off at 5.30am.
The alarm control board in the foyer said that smoke had been detected in the basement, so I went down to have a look. I found a mop bucket there, and a Coles trolley from the 80s. Neither of them were on fire.
Back in the foyer, I noticed that someone had done a careful job of smothering the alarm speaker with Blu-tack. Seemed it had been annoying people lately—and that might explain why everyone is ignoring it, I thought.
Still, not wanting to be the guy who deactivated the alarm just before a fire burned everyone to cinders, I decided to leave it going while I went and had a shower.
It was still going by the time I was dried and dressed, so I went back down to have another look.
As I stood there, doing my best puzzled squint at the control board, hoping for the arrival of someone more qualified, a man wearing no pants appeared from around the corner. He was a plumpish guy, mid-40s, and he had on an ironed, white business shirt that came down just low enough to obscure whether he was wearing any undies.
My eyes must have made a pretty observable switch from his face to his groin, because he straight away seemed sorry to be there. 'Hi mate', he said, then turned and went back the way he came. Gone like a rare bird.
The inaugural meeting of the First Responders Club was over.
Not one of our best, I'll admit. We found it at Caloundra Markets alongside a stall selling translucent wax skulls in a variety of colours. The polite side of me wondered if we should buy one as recompense for the picture.
Browsing the stalls, I realised something about Shelley that I'd missed before: she doesn't go to markets to buy things, she goes to pronounce loud judgement on other people's small business ideas. ("Well they're not going to be around in a month's time, are they", and "What?! A dog pawtisserie?"). It was like following a steamroller through a field of wine glasses.
What she said was true though. There were lots of bad ideas in that market, the dog pawtisserie being only the worst of them. All those Peruvian pan flautists with electro accompaniment being the next worst, in my book.
But it was precisely what Caloundra Markets lacked that reminded me of another market I'd been to that had it all. The best market ever. It was in Paris, and remains to this day a sad jewel in my crown of regrets.
This market was like a dream. Boxes of old buttons, rusted biscuit tins full of ivory piano keys, black and white photos salvaged from deceased estates, weathered hand-tools that only old people would know the use of. Tables and tables of beautiful, old, treasurey junk—enough to fill a whole square.
But of course, as anyone who has had a nightmare about a market could predict, there was not enough time. We found this square only 20 minutes before we were due to meet friends elsewhere. 20 minutes—that's just enough time to be defeated in a pointless haggle over the price of a nice bottle opener ("C'est une antiquiter! C'est une antiquiter!").
And so, our 20 minutes having expired, I took out my pocket knife and made a blood promise to return to the market later that day. But as way leads onto way, I never did make it back.
Strolling through Caloundra Markets now, fresh from my dark reverie about Paris and how I broke my promise to all that lovely rubbish, I said to Shelley: "I wish people would just get their junk out".
And then we laughed and laughed like immature idiots about me wishing people would get out their junk, and I resolved once more to forget about that market in Paris.
On Wednesday I came home to find a note slipped under our door:
Flat 3 (downstairs) asks Flat 6 (upstairs) down for a glass of wine and a chat. Any time after 7.
A chat, I thought. They want us to buy their flat.
I know to some that may seem a stretch, but I felt pretty certain of it. From our very first meeting, Jocelyn and Bill, the old English couple from downstairs, seemed to be setting us up for something.
It was the things they talked about: how they had recently incurred an enormous debt, how they had been forced to vacate their flat and rent it out for cash, how they were now having trouble finding a tenant, how real estate agents had told them they could sell the flat for such-and-such a price, and how it seemed much harder these days for young people like us to get into the real estate market.
And other things: They wanted to know what our professions were, and they kept trying to gauge exactly how much we enjoyed living there—what we liked about the building and our flat. (Jocelyn took every opportunity to highlight the advantages their flat had over ours.) Also, they were getting on a bit in years. Jocelyn had been born in Paddington tube station during The Blitz, and Bill seemed much older than that even.
Yes, a chat meant buy our flat, I was sure.
But we didn't want to buy their flat, did we? To my mind it didn't have a great deal going for it, no matter what Jocelyn said about their views of surrounding buildings being better than other flats' views of open air.
Regardless, it was a problem for another day. Shelley had to work late that night, so I could put them off until another time at least. Jocelyn had put her number at the bottom of the note, so I called to postpone.
'Oh, well you should come down,' said Jocelyn, 'if you're not doing anything.'
I saw my opportunity to think fast present itself, and then zoom into the distance.
'Yes yes yes,' she said. ‘Now I can't feed you a meal, but Bill might have some wine he can bring out.'
Did I ask for a meal? And is the wine just a maybe now?
I arrived to find Jocelyn quite dressed up—big gold bangle earrings and a bright floral top—and Bill wearing what looked to be a brand-new yellow polo shirt. He brought out some wine, crackers and a chocolate bar cut into four pieces.
Jocelyn talked. Oh man did she talk, and I don't even know what about, but two things were becoming clear: she was going to say whatever popped into her head, and I was going to listen.
And after half an hour, something even more terrible was beginning to dawn on me. Here I was waiting for the other shoe to drop—the sale of their flat— when all the while … there was no other shoe. When they said 'a chat', they actually meant a chat. On a Wednesday night. Who were these people? Here I was drinking white wine, chowing down on the last of some seaweed crackers and a cut-up Snickers bar, and she would not stop talking. The air kept flowing from her lungs, and there I sat like a jellyfish, quiet and boneless, at the mercy of the current. And across from me I saw another jellyfish — he was wearing a brand-new yellow polo shirt, and he had that look on his face like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, post-lobotomy.
After one hour and twenty-four minutes had passed, I cut Jocelyn off mid-musing and said I had to go make dinner. She asked me for my email address and both phone numbers, and I gave them to her, because despite having learned many years ago at the hands of a sociable hitchhiker named Rasheed that this is not a good thing to do, I still haven't learned how not to do it.
The following morning I received an email from Jocelyn with Test in the subject field. I thought to myself, Julian, you deserve everything you get.