Tales of Eccentric Landlords

by Mikaella Clements

1. Dix Street, New Jersey. $550/month, $34.50 for utilities, $25 for the communal grocery shop I’d sometimes manage to scrounge a few wilted greens from.

I never met the landlord at my first rental.

My first week in the U.S. was spent in the fog of jet lag, hormones, and tears that came with moving halfway around the world only to find that you kind of forgot to find somewhere to live. I spent a week going from one house to another with growing desperation, trying to choose between the woman who wanted me to sleep in her living room and the landlord who promised he’d finish the kitchen “soon” and forbade overnight guests. I found a good house, took the room, and came back to sign the lease the next day only to find that the toilet had been removed. Everything was awful, until Chris showed up, quietly carried all my bags up the stairs, built my bookcase, and put me with a minimum of fuss into a house of messy, friendly stoners.

Chris, my first friend in America, was the one who organised the rent and bills, collected everyone’s cheques, sent around emails and signed them “the resident asshole.” I never got an American bank account sorted out for the semester I was there, and for some reason my travel card hated transferring money: every month, I paid him in cash. Some weeks into my vagabonding my way round Europe, he messaged me, “how many other foreigners have you given >28 $100 bills to?” None. It was a special bond. At night we’d get in his car — awe inspiring, to an Australian city kid, that everyone knew how to drive — and he’d head out for strange New Jersey suburbs, streets where every house was identical, both of us dozy and trying different American fast food places on the way.

It was a good house. I was there for such a short period of time that the frequent filth and laughable attempt at communal groceries seemed part of the charm to me, the indispensable flaws in the story. Down the hall from me was my other favorite roommate, Cassandra the misandrist poet. We engaged in a shorthand version of the roommate love affair: leaving snacks outside each other’s doors, picking each other up from train stations or hospitals late at night, texting to wake each other up from naps with the promise of pancakes, cackling in the kitchen like witches while another roommate’s scummy friends scurried nervously around us.

“You know everyone’s scared of you,” Chris told us once, but our resident asshole always seemed kind of peaceably pleased by it.

There was another landlord, of sorts. Not the missing guy who got, via Chris, my many $100 bills, but the 40-year-old man who lived with his parents across the street. He didn’t have a job: He spent all day either sitting on his front porch, or riding his tiny bike up and down the street. There were rumors, mostly circulated by him, that he was an ex-con. He also left us a lot of notes.

They remain, to this day, the most incredible notes I’ve ever seen. The first came before any of us had ever moved in, a warning about noise levels: ACT HUMAN, NOT ANIMAL. HAVE A PLEASANT STAY. They were all written in the same black crooked capitals. They were all terribly concerned both by us and on our behalf. Occasionally they were vaguely affirming, as the one we received that read: YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED THE GARBAGE HAS NOT BEEN PICKED UP, RIGHT? WELL, IT’S NOT GOING TO BE! DON’T SET YOURSELVES UP FOR A FINE. PULL IT IN. THOUGH YOU WERE CORRECT ON THE DAY, YOU FAILED TO REALIZE THAT TODAY IS A HOLIDAY — ESPECIALLY FOR GARBAGE MEN! TODAY IS LABOR DAY.

Once he looked up blueprints to ascertain that the hedge that was growing too wildly at the side of our driveway was indeed our responsibility and not next door’s. He supplied a photo so we could see how pristine it had once been, only eight years ago. Chris and I came home from class the next day to find him wildly tearing handfuls from the hedge with his bare hands. He looked sheepish when we told him that we’d already let our real landlord know, and it would be trimmed soon. Sheepish, but also kind of faintly pleased and surprised, like against all the odds we’d done him proud. By the end, I felt a strange, madcap responsibility to him. He was too brilliant a weirdo to ignore. He took great pleasure in lording it over all of us. I don’t think he owned even the house he lived in, but he might as well have owned the whole street.

Coming home from class about two months after I moved in, he cycled up and down the street, eyeing me on his various turns past, clearly plotting. Finally he slowed and bellowed, “So! HOW DO YOU LIKE DIX?”

It was pronounced exactly as you’d expect. I told him, truthfully, that I liked it very much.

2. Plenty Road, Melbourne. Rent, food, utilities all inclusive for the neat price of my dignity.

Fun bit of advice — you know how people tell you that if in any way you can help it, even if it’s easier what with saving to move across the world (again) and finishing your degree and also when you get hit by the car, you still shouldn’t move back in with your parents once you’ve officially moved out? Man, they are really, really right, and all of the love in the world for a good home town and entertaining siblings and a nice cat doesn’t stop them from being right.

The bouncy castle my mother hired for my dad’s fiftieth birthday was pretty good, though.

3. Cotham Park, Bristol. £360/month, £30–40 for utilities. £110 for the council tax I was liable for as the only non-student. Amount of times I paid the tax in the five months I lived there: maybe twice.

Looking for a house when I moved to the U.K. should have been less hellish than moving to the U.S.: I had a girlfriend to stay with, I didn’t have to sort classes out, I had enough in savings that I could wait until I was all settled to worry about work. I managed to fret myself into a complete panic about it all the same, and with the typical weirdness of jet lag and moving across the world again and another range of depressing flats now mixed with amazing flats which the roommates steadfastly refused to give to me, I was getting distinctly wild-eyed by the end of my second week there.

I took a break to go to London for the Student Pride event, spending a night drinking in a hostel and then clubbing in central London (not worth it) with a host of the Bristol LGBT+ scene: Drunk Kate (apparently different to Sober Kate), Chunder Chris (so known after his outstanding record of throwing up in freshers week), and the girl who eyed me speculatively when my girlfriend introduced me and said, “Yes, I’ve stalked you on Facebook.” I arrived back in Bristol the next day stinking of gin, exhausted, and with three accidental dreadlocks. All the same, I gamely staggered up the hill to the house viewing I’d organized earlier, was in the process of shaking hands with the girl who let me in, and then walked into the living room to find an equally filthy and hungover Chunder Chris eyeing me with some astonishment. I moved in three days later. Are you just only going to be friends with guys called Chris, my sister texted me.

I loved that house. It had its share of drama along with a tiny, cramped kitchen that for some reason we all insisted on hanging out in together and a bathroom that was under constant demand, but it was where I made my first Bristol friends, and my room was always sunny, and it had a red door that made me inexpressibly happy every time I came down the street towards it.

Our landlord was equally sunny. When I met him, Rob was helpful and charming — explained how UK leases worked, accepted the strange banking situation I was dealing with without a qualm, and gently enquired if I was going to be okay with the drama that had resulted in the person who’d last occupied my room leaving.

He also showed me the magazine that featured a photo of him as a stuntman in 47 Ronin, as well as pressing on me a keyring and a poster for the independent movie he’d produced and starred in: LANDLORD: TIME TO PAY THE RENT. He would text us news about our broken oven with the note: sorry, can’t call, on set filming 24. He will, I’m told, be appearing as a stuntman in the new Avengers movie. On weekends, he sings at weddings.

Rob’s partner in crime or film was Noddy, the handyman who came to fix any problem in the flat, big or small (there were plenty of both). He had the thickest Bristolian accent I’d ever heard; we could barely understand each other. When there was a situation with a rat, he came around to board up the stairs under which the rat had been living, but not without some regret.

“Easier way to deal with this,” he said. “I’ll lend you my cat. She’ll get rid of him right away.”

“Oh,” my lovely polite housemate said, “we couldn’t possibly take your cat!”

“That’s all right,” Noddy said comfortably. “I’d have her back. I’ve got eight cats. I love cats, I do.”

4. Tyndalls Park Road, Bristol. £350/month, £100 for utilities and council tax, £30 on incense to get the smell of damp out.

A shabby, miserable flat that is too recent to make a joke about. I was tricked by a friendly roommate and a One Direction calendar on the wall when I went to the house viewing into thinking it would be an entertaining enough place to live. By the time I moved in, though, the calendar was gone, the roommate had taken an insane amount of shifts that meant I saw her about once a week, and the other roommate had arrived — a girl who had the tendency to sit with her friends, in the living room, in the dark, completely silently. They didn’t even have their phones out.

I suffered through a summer on Tyndalls Park Road, made pleasant by the fact that my girlfriend, having not much else to do, suffered through it with me. We were reduced to frustrated tears by the fact that the oven, having apparently decided to function only as a grill, actually melted our pizza; I called her shrieking and furious one night when, after scrubbing the bath clean for an hour in order to finally take one and relax, the water refused to drain. It sat there for two days before my landlord showed up to take care of it.

The landlord made things a little better. He was the most perfect rich Englishman I’ve ever met, though I would still quite like to collect an aristocrat or Draco Malfoy-esque bro. Ted wasn’t like that. In his seventies, Ted was constantly confused, had hair that exactly resembled an upturned and filthy mop, and would leave me long, rambling voicemails that made it sound as though he was drunk and had a mouthful of marbles. He was frequently surprised that I lived there. Once I waved to him on the street and he was so baffled he almost walked into a pole.

He was puzzled, but vaguely accepting when I told him I’d be moving out. “Didn’t you have a six-month contract?” he asked, but seemed to have forgotten a moment later. I told my housemates, packed all of my stuff into a taxi, and got the hell out of there. The pervading damp, the mold everywhere, and the literal bars on my first floor window faded into distance behind me, but I’d miss Ted’s bewildered acceptance of me, and his habit of telling me about the Australian he liked to go to karaoke with. Apparently they’d sung a lively duet of Waltzing Matilda.

I looked him up once. He’d had a Daily Mail article written about him, of course: “Millionaire property developer told to pull down 12ft pillars topped with lions at his £1.7million ‘castle’ after he built them without permission.”

Incredibly, some months later there was a follow up article. He’d broken his collarbone trying to pull them down by himself.

5. Northumberland Road, Bristol. £430/month, water and council tax inclusive. Additional random but generally exorbitant ££ for the housemate who insists on having the heat on for eight hours a day, including 2 a.m. — 3 a.m.

My friend and I fell on this house like weary travelers after weeks of searching. It came with a housemate already there and possibly the maddest of all the mad landlords, and the living room was more of a hallway, but it was incredibly cheap, five minutes walk away from one of the best streets in Bristol, and my room was big enough for a living room to be unnecessary. We sit in my room on the old floral sofas in front of great glass doors that open up into the backyard and drink tea and talk, keeping an eye out for foxes. A couple of weeks ago I saw a baby fox sleeping on the stone wall at the back. The Wi-Fi is terrible and there’s an ominous bubble of air growing up under my floorboards, but most mornings when I wake up in my big bed I feel content and ready to stretch out, and all my walls are touched by the scarce winter sunlight, and it only smells as bad as I let it.

The landlord, unfortunately, looks like Peter Pettigrew. There’s no way to get past it, and that means when he lets himself in — yes, I know, yes, whatever — and scurries up the hallway towards us it’s a little bit alarming, but he is friendly and good natured, despite his tendency to get overwhelmingly stressed by the simplest things. After we first saw the house, the revelation that both of us would be away that weekend and unable to sign the lease until Monday threw him into a tailspin: I fielded three tearful calls. He is incapable of conducting a conversation that is less than twenty minutes long, and thirty is by far the average time you’ll be spending listening to him run himself in circles.

His name is Paul, but we don’t pay rent to him. We pay our rent to Mrs. D Fairman: his dead mother. We’re fairly sure she’s been dead for some years now, but he makes constant reference to her, both sweet and sad. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse that there’s clearly some sort of weird scam going on that’s keeping her bank account open.

We don’t really mind. We’re thinking about buying the first oil portrait that we find in a charity shop — man, woman, or dog — hanging it in pride of place, and calling it Mrs D Fairman. Honestly, I think he’d probably like it.

At night, my roommate and I come home and complain about our jobs, and drink gin or tea, and sit up late going over the minutiae of our love lives. We discuss, in great detail, people that the other one has never met. Every week, the bins are put out mysteriously — we’re not sure who does it, but it means we don’t have to. The other day we opened a shared Netflix account. Yeah, things are good.

Mikaella Clements is an Australian writer based in the U.K. She occasionally remembers to make shy jokes on Twitter.

This story is part of our Real Estate Month series.

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