White horse

Housesitters and visualisation – the ups and downs of judging someone based on first impressions

White horse
The audio for “White horse” is featured in this episode ☝️ of the Without a hitch podcast

Some people can pull off wearing shoes with no socks. Perhaps their feet don’t sweat so badly, or the composition of their sweat is inoffensive. Digby wasn’t one of those people. The moment he sunk into our sofa – barefoot – and flopped out his laptop, I detected the first whiff of toe odor from across the room, tones which mingled strangely with the usual smell of warm wood.

“We’ll just be packing for a bit longer, then we’ll be off,” I said.

“Oh yes, yes, sounds splendid,” said Digby.

Digby wore some kind of collarless polar-fleece bushshirt, with a low neck that gaped to reveal his chest hair. He’d brought a little paper bag with him that I’d examined unintentionally, thinking it was one of our packages to load into the car. It contained some deodorant, shaving paraphernalia and a dark ball of clothing, a single garment of some sort. I put the bag down the moment I clicked that it was Digby’s, not wanting to pry further – but now I desperately wanted to take another look, to know which single garment Digby thought was worth changing during his five-day stay.

“Did you happen to get that Google Doc I sent?” I asked, pausing next to the sofa with a suitcase in each hand. “It’s got the Wifi password and stuff in it, but also useful stuff about the pets and the house, like what can go in the dishwasher versus not.”

“Oh yes, yes, that’s wonderful,” said Digby, not looking up.

“Is there anything you’d like to know more about, like the kitchen?” I asked.

Digby peered at me over the thin frames of his glasses, then smiled briefly.

“I wouldn’t worry about the kitchen. My cooking skills extend to dialling 0800 83 83 83. Ha! The only thing I’ll be doing is reheating pizzas.” He went back to looking at his computer.

I took the suitcases out to the car.

It didn’t matter that we didn’t know Digby, I told myself. We’d had other housesitters from this website, and they’d all been great. One couple had published a farm roster on our fridge to illustrate their routine for feeding the dog Teddy, the cat Wanda, and the chickens; they baked a fruit loaf for us and when we found it on the table, it was still warm; they had their friend design a thank-you card with a sketch of Wanda on the front. They’d set the bar perhaps unreasonably high.

A German couple (friends of friends) once looked after our place in midwinter. The only complaint we really had was that they burned through month’s worth of wood in a week. Vic and I joked that they might have just thought it natural to burn the fire white hot around the clock, so that they needn’t wear any clothes.

I didn’t get a chance to meet Digby before he arrived and settled on the sofa, but Vic had met him a few days prior.

“He seems like a nice guy who really loves dogs. And he had great reviews on the website,” Vic had said.

Now I’d met Digby and had made my own impression. But we were due to leave, he was already sitting on the sofa, and it was just too awkward and inconvenient for me to speak my mind. This trip was for my fortieth birthday, and Vic had put a lot of effort into planning it. I decided to make it my mission to leave this behind me. I’d need to trust that Digby aspired to competence. I mustn’t bug Vic about it either, as is sometimes my way. I wouldn’t even mention Digby.  

We were pretty much finished packing the car, and I started making some coffee to go.

“Want a coffee? I’m making some,” I asked Digby.

“Yes. Black,” he said.

I took the coffee over to him.

“Right, well, we’re off then,” I said. “Everything you need to know is in that doc, but feel free to flick Vic or me a message if you need. It’s not the most glamorous job, I’m sorry – but it would be a huge help if you could pick up the dog poos off the lawn and clear out the cat litter from time to time.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said Digby, tapping his bare foot.

“Okay, see you then,” I said.

I walked out past Digby’s shoes and his little paper bag.

- – — – -

I learned enough in my first thirty nine years to know that relaxation for me is not a destination or a service: it’s work. A therapist once suggested visualisation as a way to reduce my anxiety. At the time, I was worried about my children, Neko and Ida, travelling long-distance with someone else. I kept imagining the worst. The therapist suggested I visualise a brilliant white light surrounding the kids, one that would keep them safe. This did actually help, not to dispel my fears, but to push them to the edges, replaced with something more positive as my main focus.

I was in the passenger seat, and we were just passing through Whanganui, on the way to Taranaki. Everyone in the car was tuned in to something different: the kids were listening to audiobooks on headphones; Vic had a podcast on. The sun was streaming across our laps. We flashed past expanses of farmland. I closed my eyes.

I imagined Digby and a white light – not protective, but supportive, a light which would imbue Digby with qualities I hoped for in a housesitter: Care. Respect. Tidiness. Cleanliness. Common sense. Additional, unplanned visuals emerged. Now he was dressed in white, and riding a white stallion. In place of greasy, thin hair he had a blond mane. He wore fresh clothes. He had a scabbard, and in it, a sword. This Sir Digby furrowed his brow, and with nothing but a nod told me, I’ll take it from here.

I opened my eyes because the car was slowing. We were pulling in for petrol.

After we fuelled up and pulled back onto the highway, my thoughts strayed back to Sir Digby. It had made me smile, which was progress, but my mind, of its own accord, seemed to be trying to reject the conceit, to reopen my initial impressions. Maybe I was the one who needed to be like the knight, noble and willing to give people a chance to prove themselves.

As we passed through Hāwera, I turned down the podcast.

“So, do you really think Digby will be okay?” I asked Vic. “He didn’t really seem to be paying attention.”

Vic sighed.

“He’ll be fine,” she said


- – — – -

A few days into our trip we got a message from some friends concerned that someone had stolen our dog. Teddy’s a distinctive dog: bright orange with curly wool like a sheep. This was actually something of a relief to me, because it partway confirmed that Digby had actually taken Teddy on a walk. Sir Digby. Holding up the sword, catching the light.

We were staying at an Airbnb just out of Waverley, in Taranaki. It looked out over a black sand beach; the surf mashed into cliffs weary of holding it back, scarred and crumbling. Our hosts had left a package of goodies for us, including Digestive chocolate biscuits and marshmallows so that the kids could try s’mores, an American tradition they knew nothing about but liked the sound of. It rained almost nonstop during our stay, so starting a fire in the firepit was a smoky ordeal requiring enough kerosene-soaked fire lighters to steam some of the wood dry, so that the real burning could proceed. Neko and Ida were enthusiastic at first, but it took so long they left me in the drizzle until I’d coaxed the fire to a state of temporary embers. They roasted the marshmallows, squeezed them between their broken Digestives (they aren’t particularly strong biscuits), and hurried back inside to eat them. It was freezing and we all had sniffly colds.

On the day of my birthday, I got to sit and have breakfast in bed, enjoy the incredible handmade cards Neko and Ida had illustrated for me, and play on a brand-new wooden chessboard I received. We ended the day in a spa outside, overlooking the sea, with the bubbles jostling us about. The cliffs turned black, the sun set the sky mauve, and all we could smell was chlorine and wet grass.

When it came time to pack and start the car journey home, it occurred to me that I hadn’t given Digby or the house a thought for days.

- – — – -

On the drive home there was a lot of time to think about home, and Digby. I put him back on his white horse, and he raised his sword into the air. A burst of white, yellow and pink light burst from the sword, so bright I had to squint. The new Netflix Masters of the Universe had come out that same day, and some He-Man references were creeping in to this visualisation. I wasn’t sure if this was recommended, but it certainly upped the entertainment value for me. I was starting to feel differently about Digby. I wondered if this, perhaps, was the true point of the exercise. I needn’t have judged him so harshly. I should assume good intentions, like Vic does.

Digby texted Vic at around 10:30am that day to ask when we’d be home. He wrote that he had to catch a train to another house, and would be gone by the time we arrived, at around 3pm. That was fine, although it would be a shame not to say thanks in person.

- – — – -

As we turned into our street, I started to list the things I wanted to get done with what was left of the day: Unpack the bags. Check the chickens. Clean the floors. Change the litter. Put on some washing.

We pulled up to the curb. Vic headed in through the gate first and I started unloading the car. I lugged the first couple of suitcases up the path and saw Vic rushing around picking up dog poo off the lawn.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Nothing. You just head on inside,” said Vic.

There wasn’t a lot of lawn space. We were building a deck out back and some tables and building supplies were stacked out the front. But what little space there was was completely chock full of poo. There was more shit than grass. To Teddy’s credit, he’d somehow spaced them roughly evenly, in an elaborate poo grid, each spaced about ten centimetres from the last.


I could see Teddy waiting at the front door for us, behind the glass. His curly orange hair had grown a little over his eyes, so he had to dip his head and raise his nose to peer underneath the wool. It made him look forlorn. When I opened the door he rushed outside with his tail wagging.

The hallway was glowing orange from the sun hitting the wood, which made me feel at home. But the air was… viscous. There was an acrid, oppressive smell. It seemed electrical, like an appliance had short-circuited or blown up.

“What’s that smell?” I said to Vic, who had just joined me. I often smell things other people don’t notice right away, and I hoped she’d say she couldn’t smell anything, but she screwed up her face and took a step back.

“Yeah, I don’t know. It’s bad,” Vic said.

It was starting to get really cold outside, but we had no choice but to fling open every door and window in the house. Neko and Ida seemed oblivious to the smell and just went to their rooms to reacquaint themselves with their things.

I could taste a noxious film forming on the back of my throat. I went out onto the deck and paced back and forth, trying to put some distance between me and the house. I needed to know what had happened, what Digby had done. Vic tried to call him, but he wasn’t answering.

Remembering the lawn, I went back inside to check the cat’s litter box. It was overflowing with poo, and there was litter scattered everywhere. It looked like Wanda had tried to be as neat as Teddy, but she had even less space to work with.

I checked the pantry. Digby had been collecting the eggs, at least. The smell quickly became too much for me again, and I started to feel light-headed. I went out the back door, threw on some gumboots and stomped down to the chicken coop. Their water containers were bone dry, and the food barrel looked about as full as I’d left it. I stormed back up the path, kicked off my gumboots so hard they went flying off the deck, and went in to grab my phone.

Back out on the deck, the light of the day was starting to fail. There was still much to do before it got dark. I called a couple of times but Digby’s phone went straight to his voicemail. On my third attempt he answered.

“Hi Digby. How are you?” I said. “ Hey, I need to ask you about the house. There’s a terrible smell, like something’s burning – do you know anything?”

I needed to know what I was dealing with. This detective state was the only thing holding back my fury.

“Ah yes, hello—” Digby said, and then the phone cut out.

I texted him: “Hey, you cut out? Okay to call back?”

He called back a few minutes later.

“Yes, hello again. Sorry about that,” he stammered.

“So: The smell. What’s happened?” I said, straining to keep it professional.

“Ah yes, yes. Well. You see,” Digby started. “I, ahem, I put an egg on the gas to boil, and then I got a phone call. I must have forgotten about it. Yes. Next thing, I hear a bang like a shotgun going off, and I rush in, and there’s all this smoke, and there’s egg splattered everywhere.”

“So, the egg exploded? That’s the smell?” I did some mental maths to work out how long it might take for all the water in a pot to boil dry, and to superheat an egg to explosion point. Over half an hour, surely.

“Yes, there was egg,” said Digby, “but really it was the pot handle. It burned up, and it took me some time to find tongs to pick it up with.”

“So, the smell is the burnt handle?” I asked.

“Yes, I imagine so. It’s quite a distinctive smell, isn’t it?” said Digby. “I opened up a window on the side—”

“You mean the kitchen window?” I said, confused.

“Yes, the window on the side,” Digby continued, “and l left it open for a while, but then I had to leave to catch the train, and I didn’t want anyone to climb in the window, so I had to close it up.”

There was so much I wanted to say here. Like, if I had the choice, I’d rather air out the place properly and risk being burgled. Plus: You locked up my dog in a house full of noxious smoke.

“When did this happen?” I asked.

“I’d say, about mid-morning,” Digby answered.

So, around the time you sent us the text to ask when we’d be back. He might have thought to mention some of this. Any of it.

“The egg really went everywhere,” he added.

“Huh?” I said.

“The egg,” said Digby. “When it exploded it went all over the wall, the bench, the floor. I think you’ll agree that those areas were pretty well wiped down and clean. Plus, I vacuumed up what was on the floor.”

“Huh. Okay, so: It’s pretty bad here,” I said. “We may need more details from you in the coming days. I’ll see what the insurance company has to say.”

“Insurance… company?” said Digby, his voice wavering.

“Yes. The insurance company. I’ll be in touch.” Then I hung up.

I took a deep breath of the cold outside air before plunging into the kitchen to confirm a few things for myself. For starters: Where was this pot and handle? I could now understand the little pieces of what looked like yellow rubber spattered across the white tiles behind the stove, and over the coffee grinder. The stovetop had been wiped, except for what must have been some of the pot handle, burned to ash on one element. I looked inside the vacuum cleaner, but saw no evidence of egg, or anything else.

I wasn’t yet sure whether what I was seeing so far was evidence of dissembling, ineptitude, or a leaky memory. I kept looking.

I opened the utensils drawer and there, amongst the knives, was the pot handle – the normal black bakelite at one end, but a charred, grey mess at the other. It looked like one of the burnt logs from my firepit a few nights back.

When Vic came into the kitchen I was standing there laughing, with the handle in my hand.

“What’s so funny?” Vic said.

“He…” I had to pause to wipe a tear from the corner of my eye, “he… just put it away, in the drawer, with the knives. As though that’s something you do when you nearly burn down the house. You just put the charred remains in the nearest drawer!” We both laughed.

I felt I had a little insight into Digby’s thought process now, so I opened the pans cupboard, and there it was: nestled amongst the other shiny stainless steel cookware was the blackened remains of the pot that Digby tried to boil an egg in. When I pulled it out to take a closer look, behind it was… another blackened pot, in much the same state, although the handle wasn’t as badly burned.

“Jesus,” I said to Vic. “How many times did this happen?” We stopped laughing.

The final exhibit I found was a steel tray, still in the oven. It was dark brown and thickly layered with baked grease. The top layer was still runny, and glistened in the light. This was the tray upon which pizza on pizza was heated, each floating on and contributing to the oil of the last.

Vic and I got to cleaning what we could. It was dark, but the doors and windows had to stay open.

- – — – -

When I went to taekwondo a few nights later, I imagined the kicking dummy was Digby.

Okay Digby, now here’s an axe kick to the top of the head. Whumph.

Right, Digby, now, a push kick to the solar plexus. Poof.

Roundhouse to your ribcage. Oomph.

Spinning heel kick to the neck. Thwack. Actually, it was supposed to be the face, but I missed. I’m still learning. It’s quite a hard kick to land.

I was pretty sure this was quite far beyond the kind of visualisation the therapist had originally recommended.

Back home, we tried a couple of different sprays to neutralise the odours. The second one merely layered a cloying floral smell over the original bad one. We set out wet dishes of baking soda. These delighted the kids, because once it dried out they pretended it was snow. We kept the house entirely open all day every day, which would take the edge off, but then you’d close the doors at night and wake up in the morning once more to the smell of a kitchen fire.

We had a minor breakthrough when we worked that one curtain near the kitchen had been so tainted it was perpetuating the stink – enough to rattle your lungs whenever you went near it. We took that down and threw it outside. Over the next few days I wiped down every conceivable plane of the kitchen and dining room: ceiling, walls, cupboards, floor, each individual wooden piece of the blinds. It was putrid and monotonous, but incredibly satisfying. Underneath was a fresh skin with which we could start again.

I called Digby one more time, explaining that we were investigating an ozone machine and waiting on an insurance assessment.

“Oh my lordy,” he said. “By the way – if I give you my address, could you please send my cellphone charger? I think I left it.”  

We were still waiting on the insurance rep. It was starting to look like we wouldn’t need the ozone machine or the insurance assessment. The place was starting to gleam from the supercleaning (something good was coming from this), and we were making progress eradicating the smell. All we’d have to show the rep would be a burnt pot and handle. Times two.

I told and retold the story to friends, who expressed their dismay and commiseration. Each time I slightly refined the image of Digby I thought I should leave them with. I hadn’t achieved the level of acceptance required to say: “Someone looking after our house had an unfortunate accident and burnt a pot, and they were unsure what to do afterwards, but they’re doing okay.” That would be an account reserved for friends and acquaintances. But I had moved on from my original impulse to say something that implied nefarious intentions, like: “This stranger nearly burnt our kitchen down and poisoned our dog – and they’re still at large.” I found it therapeutic to settle somewhere in the middle, essentially what I believed to be the truth: “A draggletailed, bona fide idiot burned a pot in our kitchen after leaving it on the element for over half an hour, utterly smoked out the place, did little to remedy the situation, and neglected to mention any of this to us.”

Author’s note: Digby, if you’re reading this and are perhaps feeling a little aggrieved by this disparaging account of your housesitting prowess, please keep in mind that merely having this account committed to words, using a fake name (yes, readers, Digby is not the real name), is, I believe, to get off rather lightly. And no, I won’t be sending you the phone charger. Among other reasons, I lost the address soon after writing it down.