When I moved into my current house, I inherited a heap of furniture from family friends who were downsizing.
I tell people proudly that nothing in my house is new, and frame what was a convenient arrangement for both parties as evidence of my impeccable environmental credentials.
Part of this haul was one of Australia’s first microwave ovens. The size of a small washing machine and with the heft of a bank vault, this microwave had faithfully served a family of six for decades.
And it served me well for five years until one day after heating up some corncobs the door wouldn’t open.
“How do I open the door of my microwave?” I tweeted. “It stuck.”
Many people, after judging me for cooking corn in the microwave, suggested I smash the door open with a hammer.
It seemed a strange thing to take a hammer to one of your appliances with the intention of breaking it. Didn’t stressed-out corporate people pay somebody a lot of money to do that? But anger and stress drives the hammer, and I had neither. I smashed the door of the microwave a few times and the hammer just bounced off. So I gave up.
In the following weeks, the microwave took on a malevolent vibe – and I avoided making eye contact with it. Like many smallish household problems (how to change a lightbulb? Fix a broken toilet seat? Repel mice?) the issue with the microwave door seemed depressingly insurmountable. How to get the door off? And when I got the door off, what do I do with the busted microwave? Could it be fixed, and if not, where do I dispose of it?
The sheer heft of the microwave seemed like a horrendous insult to the planet and made a mockery of my previous boasts of having an environmentally neutral house. This ancient microwave would never biodegrade. I kept imagining the heating planet – all the humans dead but the microwave with its pathetic hammer marks and a fossilised meal still trapped in its cavity – being the thing that lasted long after the Sydney Opera House had crumbled into the harbour and the southern stand of the MCG had turned to dust.
These dystopian thoughts made me panicked and gloomy, and so it was easier to just not think about it.
But every now and then someone would tweet at me, asking if my microwave was still broken, or if perhaps I wanted their old one. And then I’d remember the food in there.
To mention the food still being in the microwave after many weeks of being trapped crossed a line. The longer it went on, the less funny it became – and the more it pointed towards some grim pathology. It was like admitting to hoarding oil-beaded takeaway containers, or not showering, or never brushing your teeth. It indicated some intrinsic neglect. It was embarrassing.
When it came to old food being stuck, and the consequences being foul, I had form.
When I was at university, a friend left her car in my garage for the summer and went to Japan for three months, taking her car keys. Before she left, she took me to the supermarket then went on to the airport.
Unpacking the groceries, I was confused. Where was the meat? I had bought a whole tray of sausages and another tray of chicken. Maybe I had left it at the supermarket?
The summer was hot in the manner of Melbourne summers: dry, simmering heat, afternoons in bed with wet flannels on the face and a fan barely shifting the nasty air.
By mid-January a vile stench had filled the streets of Parkville. It was like the smell of 100 decomposing bodies and it seemed to emanate from our house.
It was only then I realised I had left the meat under the seat of my friend’s car! Now, six weeks later, it was reaching some sort of zenith of putrefaction. It had rotted through the carpets and floor of the car. There were maggots.
Workers in hazmat suits arrived to break into the car and remove the rotting meat. Breaking the news to my friend was awful. The smell never went away.
But now a putrefaction was happening again, in my own house! And I was strangely immobilised as to how to solve the problem.
A few weeks after the microwave broke, my friend Ivan visited from Sydney and smashed the door open with a hammer.
Inside was the corn. It had grown what looked like fine white hair – towering in a Marge Simpson-style bouffant. I screamed and flung the food and plate in the bin.
Last week, I was telling one of my editors, Dave, about the mouldy corn. He is British and hasn’t been home for a while. The only chance to see his old friends is on Facebook. But when he went on recently, after six years away, “they were like the corn left in the microwave”.
I pondered this. Does he mean they looked disgusting? They were covered in mould? They were putrefied? No, said Dave, it was more that being trapped in the microwave is a metaphor for time passing. We are all going through our ageing process, and this appears more shocking and less subtle if you see old friends after some time has passed. They are the corn.
And ultimately, life is the microwave we are all trapped in.