A young couple have moved into our street. They couldn’t be more than twenty-two. I see them some mornings when I’m walking the dog. He’s dressed in sharp attire, off to work. She’s at the door, clutching their clearly adored terrier as he kisses her goodbye and hops into his Ford Ranger. I wave hello but, of course, I don’t know them. I’m left to imagine the very adult lives they lead behind that closed door.
I’m remembering my first out-of-the-family-home. It’s 1993. I’ve been accepted into Newcastle Uni. A box trailer of measly possessions is attached to the back of a cousin’s car. Relations are strained between my mother and I and she stands in the front yard watering her perfect camellias as we drive off.
I was nineteen then, and about to learn a harsh lesson about the vast chasm between expectation and actualisation. The fantasy that would be my new life was so tangible, so palpable then. I was a grown up. I was studying at uni and I was going to be living with intellectuals who would also be studying at uni. We were all going to sit around our beautiful little share house with its mismatched furniture and Frida Kahlo prints, cooking vegetarian casseroles, drinking red wine and smoking Drum tobacco. We’d share poetry and philosophy and there’d be men with long hair and goatees and Blundstone boots who would fall desperately in love with me. A whiteboard and marker would sit by our front door, inviting our myriad visitors to leave a message if they dropped around and we were all out, presumably visiting other unimaginably cool and bohemian share houses.
We were all going to sit around our beautiful little share house with its mismatched furniture and Frida Kahlo prints, cooking vegetarian casseroles, drinking red wine and smoking Drum tobacco.
This was the fantasy that filled my head as I rode the Sydney-Newcastle train line in search of my new digs. This was the ideal I visualised as I circled advertisements in the share house accommodation classifieds, feeding twenty cent pieces into a public phone, pounding the pavement between trendy addresses, sitting through interviews at kitchen tables with lease holders who reigned supreme, like monarchs in castles.
But none of them wanted me. I spent most of that year in the poorly lit room of an ex-Baptist church that was, both literally and metaphorically, miles away from any of the addresses I’d inspected.
It’s a memory I usually recount with humour but it wasn’t really funny. It stank; a disgusting, cheap dishwashing liquid smell. The ‘bedrooms’ had once been confessional boxes and mine had black, circular smears all over one wall where the other occupants had been playing squash. The tiny window was at least 9 feet above the floor and was covered in vines so the room was in a perpetual state of dusk.
The flatmates weren’t funky, red wine-quaffing, Nick Cave-listening, art house-film aficionados. In the rooms on either side of me lived ‘Surfers for Jesus’ (because, let’s face it, that’s exactly what Jesus would want us to do). They held regular prayer group meetings and on the rare occasions their doors were ajar I spied realms of biblical passages scrawled all over the walls.
The flatmates weren’t funky, red wine-quaffing, Nick Cave-listening, art house-film aficionados.
In another room dwelled a mousy junky. He was invariably clad in black Levis and one of his AC/DC shirts and the only thing that could coax him from his room where he sat playing with Star Wars figurines was the news that his dealer was at the door. He told me once that a really cool party had been held at our place. In keeping with the church theme, invites came dressed as their favourite bible character and a swimming pool was created in the immersing bath beneath the floor in our lounge room. But I saw no such thing.
In the coveted front room lived the lease holder and one of the most enigmatic characters I’ve ever met. She was a buxom, middle-aged woman studying medicine and I was perplexed at her willingness to reside in such a dump. She’d speak longingly about her husband and family back in Sydney in one breath and in the next, would relay frighteningly graphic stories of her sexual encounters with various men at her work.
I was finally forced to relocate. Coming home from uni one day I was met by my junky flatmate, his T-shirt lifted to reveal a rash-covered torso, informing me, ‘It appears we have lice.’
The cement rendered house with its Colourbond fences and tidy garden that my young neighbours occupy is a far cry from my first ‘home away from home’ or the many that followed, but in truth, I don’t regret any one of those character building experiences. They make me appreciate my quirky, cosy, two-bedroom clad number and the fact that these days, I’m the monarch of my own castle.