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How I Became an Admiral

It was a beautiful day in early summer. In a fit of hubris, I had enrolled in a class at the University to qualify in teaching English as a foreign language. I thought it would be easy. I was wrong. It was a nightmare. I was awake until 2:00 am, every night, finishing assignments and preparing lessons.

Physically stiff, I staggered out of the classroom with its horrible little chairs designed for lithe young bodies. Not mine. I was trying to remember what exactly the Third Conditional was, when I saw my wife smiling at me from the car in front of the building.

She said, “I have surprise for you.” We drove across the Anzac Bridge through Rozelle and across the old Iron Cove bridge still, at that time, the only crossing. Then past the Birkenhead Point shopping mall in Drummoyne to a row of magnificent Victorian Mansions, in the Italianate style, facing north east up Sydney Harbor.

One looked more crumbling than the rest.

She said “What do you think?”

“What do I think (still struggling with the third conditional)? Of what?”

“This house”, she said pointing to the paint-peeling splendor of yesteryear, with a sign covered in flowering creeper, saying “Harbour Breeze Lodge – accommodation for students and holiday makers.”

“It must have been superb in its day” said I, struggling to work out if I were to time-travel back to 1900, what it might have been like.

“Aha!” I cried.

“What?” said my wife.

“The third conditional”

“What? What on earth is the third conditional and what has it to do with this house?”

I started to explain that the third conditional was a form of English language construction whereby one took an impossible situation, in the past and then used the now rare subjunctive tense to express what might have happened. I was expanding from this all too brief explanation to the much more common use of subjunctive in French, when my diatribe was cut short.

“I think we should buy it!” she abruptly interrupted.

“Well,” I said, playing for time, “We would have to go over it with a fine tooth comb, before we could make a decision like that.”

“We can’t.”

“Can’t?”

“No. It’s been leased on a long term ten year tenancy to be run as a boarding house. The Tenant doesn’t want us tramping thru and disturbing his lodgers. We can look at it from the outside, but you’ll have to make a decision without seeing inside. I talked my way in today, and you’ll just have to take my word for it, all the original features are still there – huge 18 inch skirting boards, old marble fireplaces, Arts and Craft features, stained glass. It’s fabulous and the tenancy has only a few more years to run.

“So we are being asked to buy a pig in a poke?”

“Oh, but look where it is, if we did it up, it would make a wonderful home, or we could subdivide it into units, or even run it as a guest house ourselves.

“If we did it up?” I said, seeing a use for the third conditional. “And if we were rich beyond measure, we could do just that. No way!”

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