A Peculiar Type of Landlord
Content warning: this essay depicts the death of an infant and contains description of domestic violence.
My sister died in 1993. Her life consisted of nine days strapped in as whirring boxes tried their hardest to replace her heart and lungs. Before she could wash the blood from her legs, Mum was given a choice: keep her on life support at a cost of hundreds of thousands or pull the tube from her throat and let her expire. Mum was led to the ward, where she held baby Teagan as she lost consciousness. They were separated when Teagan’s breath drew short, and a nurse took Mum across the hospital grounds and into a yellowing office. Sitting in the middle of the room were two men in suits. It was time to discuss what was needed to put her to rest. The costs of plots in the children’s garden versus the regular facilities, the times in which they were available to hold ceremonies, whether or not she would like a wake, what the memorial should say, how much she had in her pockets, what casket the baby should be buried in, did she have the measurements for the baby on her person. After three hours of questioning, the two men sealed a deal with Mum, a nineteen-year-old who had never negotiated a contract in her life and, due to spousal abuse, had never been permitted to handle large amounts of cash. Despite only holding the finances of a stay-at-home mum and an alcoholic tire salesman, the parties had figured out a way to make sure Teagan could rest.
I’ve delayed calling mum for weeks.
Eventually the discomfort of avoiding responsibility becomes too great, so then and there I decide to call. Unfortunately, this breakthrough takes place over a Big Mac and surrounded by a roaring dinnertime crowd, so I relocate to the State Library lawn to try to isolate myself. The phone rings eleven times.
She sounds chirpier than usual.
‘Hey Ma, how’s life in the middle of nowhere?’
We shoot the shit, her about setting up a gardening business despite a smashed femur, me about how unemployment has gifted me a bunch more time to consider gardening and lay about eating bags of Starbursts instead. There’s a lull in conversation, and I decide to take advantage of it.
‘So I spoke to Cha the other day. Uh, is it true that they’re digging up Teags?’
‘Oh no sweetie.’
Kind of glad the gossip was wrong on this one.
‘I couldn’t pay for the extra twenty-five years, so they’re burying someone on top of her.’
At the time of my sister’s burial, plots were offered out in two different packages: in perpetuity through a one-off payment of $17,000, or repeat payments of $10,500 every twenty-five years. From a strictly profit standpoint, there’s more money in the twenty-five-year payments even without taking into consideration that if someone misses a payment you can take the plot back and sell the same property twice over. In practice, this ends with the memorial stone of your loved one torn out, and—after some unsuspecting mourner signs the contract—another person gets buried slightly shallower on top of them. This is naked exploitation of those in poverty who can’t afford the security offered by the $6,500 extra and don’t have the option of turning down a place to lay their newly-obtained corpse. But even landlords of the dead shake down their tenants for everything in their pockets.
Mum was dehydrated after leaving Teagan, resulting in a red-faced, dry sobbing when the two men sitting across the room began talking at her. The jargon was confusing. She didn't realise that was intentional. The zeroes at the ends of numbers seemed to keep growing, but she was informed that was the cost of necessity. No matter how hard she tried to focus, her thoughts would be interrupted with images of a baby whose lungs were too ill-constructed to even whimper. She signed her name on the dotted line, convinced that she was being sold the cheapest plot to suit her needs. It wasn’t accidental that the full range of options hadn’t been explained to her. They buried Teagan a week later. Turns out you don’t need much time to organise a funeral for someone who never really had a life in the first place.
In 1997, three months after the birth of my littlest brother, Mum and Dad arrived home from a party. By the next morning, Mum was on her own life support system, spotted with purple and orange welts and grooves that looked identical to fingerprints. After a night in holding, Dad emptied the joint bank accounts and changed the locks on the house. Mum woke homeless and jobless, unable to see out her right eye, and with only the discography of The Cure and twenty-two years left on a child’s burial plot in her possession.
The money never came back. Climbing out of debt in Australia isn’t an easy thing to do. Mum struggled for employment, alone for the first time since she was sixteen. Turns out nowhere was looking to take on a single mum whose skills were mostly centred around living out of a car. John Howard’s war on welfare really kicked off, and our small Centrelink allowance shrank. She’d take us to visit Teagan every few months, bringing a rainbow pinwheel along with a bottle of Jack to drink as she sat with her daughter. After scrounging enough for a Certificate IV in Horticulture, she got hired as a farmhand. Our pantry began filling up again. Then she fell into a hole working and shattered her femur. Her boss refused to pay out, and Worksafe came somewhere in the area of four years and multiple court appearances too late. After one grocery trip ended with Mum pulled over on the side of the road sobbing about the food costs, I started fasting during the day to reduce expenditure, something that my primary school never picked up on. Every time we seemed within grasp of crawling out of the poverty pit, the earth would tremor, and we’d land back into a crevasse twenty metres deeper than before.
It seemed that suddenly, the twenty-five years on Teagan’s plot were up and we owed another $10,500. We had nowhere near that amount to pay the necropolis. The Centrelink payments that Mum relied on at this time amounted to roughly $14,000 per year, most of which went to food already. The budget could not be squeezed any tighter. And so, come the phone call in 2017 asking for the next twenty-five years of payments, Mum couldn’t afford it. She was informed that failure to pay would result in removing the marker from Teagan’s plot and that it would be put back up for sale. The path through life that leads to your sister getting repossessed is a long one, but it’s far less difficult to find yourself on than you’d think.
When interacting with a for-profit institution in good old neoliberal Australia, the impetus for fighting exploitation more often than not falls on the individual to identify when they’re being scammed. Buying a house? Somehow you’re expected to understand the value of land, of a home, how much the degradation of the building and the earth around it has affected the price, and somehow you have to deploy this information against an owner, someone who has specifically been trained to identify these areas and obscure them and take most of your money, regardless of the property’s value. It’s a system entirely designed to wrench resources out of the hands of those least aware. Those without as much training. Those without the funds to train. Same system when buying a car. Same system when buying a coffin.
“The poor are expected to mourn with their teeth bared, fending off vultures with hearts haemorrhaging.”
Furthermore, the onus is on the consumer to not only identify when they’re being exploited, but to know how to manoeuvre the power they hold in order to punish the property owners for overpricing their goods. This assumes that the balance of power between the two parties is split equally. However, the truth of the matter is that property owners can withhold their goods to those they feel can’t be shaken down, they have all the resources at their hands to further obfuscate the actual value of what they hold, and aren’t being deprived of service while the transaction is ongoing. Meanwhile, the customer only holds the ability to deny the property owner’s offer and negotiate with someone who has equal opportunity to screw them over. All while being starved of a service—an essential one when you have a corpse on your hands. The customer’s only way to enact punishment is through denying the use of (and therefore payment for) the scammer’s services. Groceries, electricity, burial plots. This applies to everything.
Mum was exhausted and grieving—tossed in a room with two marketers selling something she had never expected to buy—and forced to negotiate things completely foreign to her. It becomes a feat of strength to identify when you’re being scammed and impossible to do anything about it when you’ve got a sleep debt of 160 hours and the image of your child dying seared into your mind.
Mum and Dad at least had the savings account when Teagan died. Dad had some form of employment to keep money coming in—the choice between death by starvation versus death by exposure wasn’t yet to hit them. But despite this, we still had no choice upon Teagan’s demise but to enter the debt death spiral presented to us. Families struggling (particularly the tens of thousands impacted by the early 1990s wave of unemployment) are forced into these lose-lose choices in the height of their grief. At least my family had the possibility of affording some kind of rest for our dead. What of those who had no hope of reaching even that?
The difference in power exposes a fundamental inequality between the impoverished and the wealthy in dealing with the recently dead. While those with money are given the time to deal with the pain of loss—a trauma that has been observed and recorded since as long as people could record—the poor are expected to mourn with their teeth bared, fending off vultures with hearts haemorrhaging. For $10,500 you get a plot. For $17,000 you get the peace of mind a burial is supposed to deliver.
‘I made it down to Warburton the other day, finally got to see the redwoods.’
Mum’s tone still hasn’t faltered. It feels weird to have talked about Teags without her offering even a hint of a sniffle, especially while I held myself back from swearing up a storm that could drown Swanston Street.
‘Damn, how long have you been putting off going there, six years now?’
‘Eleven.’ I feel like stealing a walking frame. There’s a pause and I listen to the wind on her end blowing through the receiver. ‘Yeah, I was thinking that’s where I’d like Teags to be.’
‘Yeah, Springvale wasn’t my choice anyway, it was just the one that was there. So I’d like to meet up with you kids and, if they give us the plaque, we can all go down and fix it somewhere down there.’
Thinking back to the Springvale plot, pushed into the corner and hidden behind an introduced tree of unknown origin, holding a pinwheel that never seemed to move, I can’t say I disagree with her. Not to mention she worked on an assignment during TAFE with us kids on redwoods. It’s the reason any of us know about the colony in Warburton in the first place.
‘What about her body though?’
Mum goes quiet. When she starts talking again, she only repeats that she’d like it if all of us could come down and place our sister to rest; again, that is.
Well, what other choice is there?
Bee Spencer (24) is a writer from Melbourne. When not writing they can be found studying ecology and modern Indonesian history.
This essay was first published in Voiceworks issue 112, Drag. Purchase the full issue here.