Sport 43: 2015
John Summers — Real life
It was like playing at real life, that first flat. Gareth, Sam and I, all students, all living there. Henry sleeping on the couch for most of the holidays. We had to go to Pak’nSave. We had to pay a phone bill and buy credit for a power manager. We took it upon ourselves to make a batch of tomato sauce. It was the cheapest place we could find and we revelled in being in a bad neighbourhood. One night Gareth and I crouched by the front window, listening to two men arguing in a car parked outside. They were burglars dividing their spoils and had come to a stalemate over bedding. ‘The thing is,’ one of them said, ‘it was my idea to take the fucking duvet in the first place.’
The house itself was old—you could run a hand over its cream weatherboards and feel the stroke of the two-man saw that cut them. It had a red tin roof, a couple of rooms on a lean and, unfortunately, a fridge alcove in the bathroom. Next door was a newer place, a red brick unit from the sixties maybe. Another three people lived there: Rick, who was about our age and ‘about to’ join the army, and an older man with the strangest tattoo I had ever seen, a large yellow kiwi on the side of his face, the beak poking right into the corner of his eye. The third was a young woman I sometimes saw shopping at the supermarket where I worked part-time. She walked slowly in platform boots as if struggling to balance, and she wore miniskirts and a bandanna wrapped so tightly round her head that I had the impression she had no hair underneath.
There was a dairy on the corner, staffed every afternoon by the owner’s son, still in his school uniform. They sold a terrible pie, a boule of bright yellow pastry filled with a thin brown paste. But they were only fifty cents, so I ate a couple a week. On the other page 6side of the street was a pub. The first sound every morning was the chain on their sign dragging against concrete as someone carried it out to the footpath. It was important to advertise the fact they sold cheap jugs, even if people only ever went there for pokies.
We rented from Mrs Wilkinson, a small woman with a face puckered with worry. She was like a landlady from Dickens, prone to shrieking odd things and veering off towards hysteria during most conversations.
One day we asked her about insulation. Damp had curled our posters and softened my uni notes.
She repeated the word syllable by syllable. ‘In-su-la-tion, in-su-la-tion. Why, I never heard of such a thing,’ she said. ‘Insulation?’
‘Like a Pink Batt,’ I said.
Her eyes widened, her voice rose. ‘A pink what? Oh, my goodness no.’ It was as if I had said something like ‘French letter’. ‘I said to Bill, in-su-la-tion. He didn’t know either.’
Mrs Wilkinson we tolerated and sometimes avoided—you needed to be in the right mood to face her. But we liked Bill. He was the maintenance man, an elderly Irishman who wore a tweed cap and jacket and cream slacks but also brilliantly white running shoes, so that I found myself expecting him to break into a sprint at any minute. Bill was a character, we decided. He went about with Best Bets tucked under his arm. We traded the facts we learnt about him—that he couldn’t drive, that he had been in cycling races a long time ago in Ireland and that he was in some sort of unmentioned relationship with Mrs Wilkinson.
At Christmas he gave me four beers. They had been a gift to him, he said, ‘But it makes me sick.’
‘Canterbury Draft or all beer?’ I said.
‘The lot of it.’
We liked him despite, or maybe because of, the work he did. His repairs were execrable, so much so they were fascinating. When the handle on the inside of the door broke off, he wedged a stout stick in its place. He wrapped a rag round this so it would be comfortable to grip, and finally he painted the whole thing white.page 7
He was also responsible for the house’s colour scheme. I found him using three tins of paint to touch up the lounge. ‘I always mix my own paint,’ he explained. So there was an aquamarine bedroom, a pink bathroom and a lime-green kitchen. He slathered it over the great porridgey lumps of plaster that filled the dents, or ‘bruises’ as he called them, that were in every wall. Even the house number on the front fence was his work, 128 painted with a four-inch brush, the numbers dribbling down the paling.
One morning I stepped up onto my bed to adjust a curtain. Stepping down, I heard a soft crunch and felt something give beneath the carpet. A rotten floorboard had finally snapped. I went looking for Bill. Both he and Mrs Wilkinson were always around. We didn’t know enough then to think this was unusual, even illegal because she never gave us any notice. They’d be in the yard inspecting something or at that flat next door, a property she also owned. A couple of times she used her time there to loudly berate Rick for not doing anything with his life. His response was to lean back against the door frame and laugh, unmoved by her words. On this day, I soon found Bill over there. He nodded across the fence. ‘I’ve got just the thing for it.’ And he ambled away.
I went back to the flat to wait. Probably I worked on an essay—two thousand words on the problems with media conglomeration or a list of all the themes and techniques that marked an Australian poet as being from this or that movement. It was scruffy work I turned in then, makeshift things like Bill’s repairs. Those first couple of years of university were overwhelming, too good to be true. You mean I really get to spend my days reading interesting books and listening to people talk about ideas, going to parties and meeting girls? My mind bounced from thing to thing, never settling on an idea well enough to understand it properly, and when it came to the actual business of essay writing I tended to dash something off, scrawling longhand in a rush and only taking these notes down to the library to type up the night before due day.
There was a knock at the door. When I opened it, Bill handed me a sheet of plywood. ‘You can put this over it.’page 8
I mumbled my thanks. It wasn’t the solution I had been hoping for. ‘I guess I could get a rug,’ I said.
‘A mat. It’s a mat you want.’ He told me to follow and together we went through the yard, past the battered firewood shed we used for our bikes and through the gate in the back fence. It opened into a section behind the flat next door. There was a narrow car shed and beside it a pile of rusting junk. Bill leaned into this and began to rummage, lifting away scraps of wood, a stretched coil of chicken wire, odd lengths of pipe. ‘Here you are,’ he said and, with a flourish, he whipped out a ragged square of Astroturf.
I would have been scratching away at my essay again when I heard the second knock on the door. And again I opened it to Bill.
He rolled his eyes. ‘She wants to see it now,’ he said.
Mrs Wilkinson was somewhere behind him, shouting. ‘Where is it?’ she said. ‘Where is it?’ She said this even as I led her though the lounge to the bedroom.
She went silent on seeing the hole and the sheet of ply (I had declined the Astroturf). But she was loud again as I followed her back out to the door. ‘Oh, the poor boy. Holes in the floor! Living in this old place with holes in the floor. Oh, my goodness.’
Bill tried to placate her. ‘He doesn’t mind. He doesn’t care.’
‘How can he not care? Holes in the floor.’
We had come to the door and she reached for the handle. Her hand stopped before it. ‘What on earth is this?’
The three of us stood there, staring at Bill’s handle—a forlorn and shabby dildo emerging from the door.
Bill very quietly said, ‘They needed something there.’
She spun around and jabbed a finger at his face. ‘You! You did this?’
The argument began in earnest now. She berated and shouted and he muttered that same sentence again and again. At no point did they ask my opinion on either the hole or the door handle and, as soon as they stepped forward just enough, I shut the door on the pair of them.page 9
It was inconvenient, all of this. Stubbing your toes on a sheet of plywood. A landlady who pretended to have never heard the word ‘insulation’. Really, though, it was glorious. We were originals, or so we liked to think, dodging Riccarton’s student ghetto—those flats with a pinched road sign on the porch and a PlayStation plugged into the TV. We were meeting people we wouldn’t find on campus: people like those two, like the man who came down to the supermarket drunk to buy a Picnic bar and then ate it, lying on his side Roman emperor style on one of the homeware store’s display beds.
We were doing the things we wanted to do. It was our time for that. I installed a cocktail cabinet in the corner of the lounge. We sometimes drank at that pub with the pokies. When I ordered a pie there the barmaid presented it to me frozen, a grey lump sliding on a plastic plate. ‘Do you want it heated up?’ she said. We made kava—Sam and Gareth traipsed around a craft warehouse looking for muslin cloth to strain it.
And we had parties. I brewed up a vat of home brew and shared it with friends, dragging our Salvation Army table outside on a warm but murky day and setting out bowls of pickled onions and potato chips. Oktoberfest we called it, although I think it was April.
On another occasion, an evening, we set up a stereo in the lounge, loaded CDs into the changer and hid away anything easily pocketed. We waited for everyone to come. That one was just an okay party, as far as I remember. Our friends were there, but few people I hadn’t met before.
Someone must have invited Rick from next door, and late in the night I spotted him standing about, on the edge of the crowd, smiling to himself. I wandered over, a bottle of my home brew in hand, and we talked about our street, about Bill and Mrs Wilkinson. He made some remark about her, that she was a crazy old lady or something like that, and he told me it was the physical test holding him back from the army. He couldn’t run the required distance fast enough and right now he was in training. I asked himpage 10 about his flatmates. Those other two weren’t flatmates, he said. The building was divided into three and they had a unit each.
‘How does that work?’ I said. ‘There’s only one door.’ The place was small too.
‘I’ll show you if you want.’
The fence between our flats was shoulder height. Rick sprinted and jumped at it. His fingers scratched at the timber as he scrambled to pull himself over. A creak came from it and suddenly he was on his back, still holding a piece of rotten paling. He was more careful on the second attempt. I followed, making sure I climbed in the same place, where the boards had, this time, proven safe.
That door opened into a shared hallway, and then another door led to his single room.
‘Well, it’s good you have your own stove,’ I said, standing awkwardly amidst the mess, looking at the caravan-style cooker close to his unmade bed.
He had to share a bathroom, he said. He reached down by the bed—everything was by the bed—to retrieve a bottle of cheap vodka from the floor. He poured me a shot glass, and took a swig from the bottle as I downed it.
Coming back through the hallway, Rick stopped to point to one of the doors and snigger. Behind it a woman was talking. She was speaking quickly and in an even tone. She was talking to herself—that young woman I had seen at the supermarket sometimes. I went to pass and to leave but Rick slammed into the door with his shoulder.
‘Shut up, you fucking bitch,’ he shouted.
The woman yelled back. ‘Go on,’ she said. ‘Smash your head in. See if I care.’
Rick banged a fist on the door. ‘You crazy bitch.’
‘That’s it. Go on, smash your head in, smash your fucking head in.’
I’d like to say I stopped him, that I pulled him away from the door and told him to leave her alone. But I didn’t do any of those things. I stood rigid, sober now and queasy as he yelled once page 11more and beat even harder on the door, his face red and the door quivering in the frame, his fist bouncing on the wood as if he might break right through it. He did this and then walked on out of the hallway, swearing to himself, forgetting I was behind him. I left too, hurrying back to our party and my friends.
We weren’t the first to have parties at that flat. In the corner of the yard was a square of knee-high weeds that had been garden once. Gareth tried digging up a patch to plant lettuces, and his spade turned over sandy, ash-coloured dirt. Unhealthy and unfertile, and broken glass all through it. There were bottle caps too, pull tabs and a dried-out condom. It was archaeology digging there, all these things from the parties before us. Parties where things got smashed, where there were fights. We decided against planting anything in that soil.
It was around that time that Sam left. His mother moved back to Australia, offering her house to him and his sister. Gareth and I needed a new flatmate, and we wrote up adverts on pieces of paper, fringing the bottom so people could tear away a note with our telephone number. In some of these ads we attempted humour. I wrote one from the perspective of a conquistador—the implication being that our three-bedroom shack was an El Dorado of sorts—hoping that we would find a suitable third, another Sam who would see things the way we did and share our discoveries. Every day I came down the polished concrete steps of the university library and went straight to the noticeboard below to find that our poster, smothered by ads for desks and law textbooks, was missing only two of the little tear-away notes, the rest curling back on themselves. An Asian man came around on behalf of his friend Frank, speaking Mandarin into a cellphone as we showed him through. He started each question with ‘Frank wants to know . . .’ but we never heard back from either of them.
And then there was the burly, goateed guy who arrived in a van one afternoon, his long hair streaming from his backwards cap to rest on the collar of his Hawaiian shirt. Right away he was hooked. page 12 There was enough space in the room for all his computers, his only requirement.
‘I’ve got another place to look at, but I think this place would be great. Anyway, the other one is all chicks.’ He pulled a face.
The minute we heard the van rumbling away, Gareth turned to me. ‘Whoa, slacker dude!’ he said.
We agreed this would make him a great flatmate, adding a new and hilarious element to our flat. But that evening I checked our messages and there was his voice, shouting over the music and bar noise behind him.
‘Sorry, dudes,’ he said, ‘but those chicks had broadband. Broadband! That’s it for me.’
Finally we rented the room to Toni and her dog, Smoochie, a floppy, enormous beast with golden curls. He was so big that sitting down meant awkwardly folding his limbs, furry elbow nubs poking out in four directions. We worried about this. We had a cat after all—Mama Puss, a tortoiseshell who came with the flat. But Toni was adamant that Smoochie liked cats. And by that stage we had no choice—no one else wanted to live with us.
Toni was right. Smoochie did like cats, or at least didn’t mind them. He would shamble towards Mama Puss for nothing more than a friendly sniff. She reacted with a hiss, sprinting off under the couch, but never going too far.
Toni herself was a bit of a mystery. I didn’t know what she did most days. She had just finished a course and she was a dance instructor, she said, but it didn’t sound like there was much work in that. Her background was another puzzle. I first assumed she was an Indian New Zealander, although she mentioned her father in Sydney and her accent sounded North American.
And once I overheard Gareth describing her to a friend: ‘She’s black,’ he said, ‘but, like, from England.’
She was smiley, friendly, maybe a little patronising. ‘Silly,’ she said, to correct some wrong assumption of mine, perhaps one about those dance lessons.page 13
Her cooking was diabolical, infusing even the studs of that house with the stink of over-broiled skate. The next day all the fixings would still be lying about the kitchen: the polystyrene pad the fish came in, the Gladwrap torn from it pornographically; half a dozen all but empty sauce bottles and smears of the offending dish across the benchtop and stove. We muttered about that amongst ourselves. For young men we were surprisingly neat, but knew we had to compromise on some things, and we appreciated her dedication to Smoochie. We loved that dog. He was a slightly mournful-looking klutz. He’d knock something over with his giant tail, then do more damage as he spun around to see what. It would be difficult finding flats, doing most things in fact, when you had an enormous animal in tow, yet Toni had made the choice to keep him.
One night I came home to find Smoochie alone. Toni arrived soon after with Steve, an American, who said, ‘John, I hear you make a mean home brew.’
I offered him a glass and chatted just a little. I was obviously a third wheel. It was a date, I supposed. I made an excuse and went to bed early, trying to read one of my course texts but hearing every word of their conversation through the thin walls. I fell asleep to wake a couple of hours later with my light still on and the book open on the bed.
‘I don’t understand why you would think that,’ Toni was saying.
‘Well, you invited me over,’ Steve said.
‘And you thought that meant I would have sex with you?’
Steve mumbled something, and they talked on this theme for a while. My curiosity soon ran out and I lay there annoyed, wondering how uncomfortable it would be to go in there and ask them to be quiet. Finally I fell back to sleep.
Gareth was staying with his girlfriend those evenings, so the next night it was just me and Toni. I joined her in taking Smoochie for a walk. We strolled through the long, straight streets that led into Christchurch’s east, and almost immediately she let Smoochie page 14 off his lead. He exploded with hairy energy, limbs firing in all directions as he took off down the street and out of sight.
‘Will he be okay?’ I said, nervously, never a dog owner.
‘He loves to go for a run. But he always comes back.’
We walked a little, talking about Smoochie, before Toni said, ‘You know Steve, who came over last night?’
‘He thought that just because I invited him over I would sleep with him.’
‘But then he went home, and he had a phone call. His mother was in hospital.’ They first thought it was serious, she implied, cancer or something similarly earth-shattering, but they had then revised it to something else. She would get better. ‘He called me today and told me, and do you know what he said to me? He said, I think you’re an angel.’
‘Ha?’ I made a choked little chuckle.
Toni turned to me with a far-off, sincere expression. She was deadly serious, trying for beatific. ‘He thinks I’m an angel, here to look out for him.’
My reaction was one of horror. I suddenly saw the end of our flat—it couldn’t withstand this level of delusion and strangeness. ‘Ha?’
Thankfully, Smoochie came running out of a driveway, knocking over someone’s rubbish bin with a clatter, and she was forced to forget her story and call him back.
Steve’s angel, yet he never visited again and it was the only time she would make that claim. Still my premonition was accurate. Our flat didn’t last, but it was for earthly reasons, petty things that turned us against each other. Our patience with those messes in the kitchen began to fade, and we started to question the way she treated Smoochie. I’d come home to find that she had locked him, not only in the house, but in her tiny room, for the entire day. He took up as much room as the single mattress she had on the floor,page 15 and he scattered her junk—books and papers, old records (even though she didn’t have a turntable)—as he burst out, anxious for space.
She didn’t feed him much either, just an ice hockey puck of dog roll a day. ‘He’s a farm dog,’ she said. ‘That’s all they eat.’ I was distrustful of this theory. I wondered whether she was trying to save money.
And I was chatting with Gareth in the kitchen one afternoon, when he casually opened the fridge, sliced off a hefty pink chunk and threw it to an appreciative Smoochie. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I’ve been doing that.’
She had been there a month. I came in, leafing through the mail. Tearing open the phone bill and happily finding that it was $37, about usual. I put it down on the kitchen counter and went to move on, when something, just a doubt, made me look again. $377! I saw now there was page after page behind it—lengthy toll calls to points throughout New Zealand but also to Sydney, America and the Cayman Islands. The account was mine. This had all been racked up in my name and now I would need to get the money out of her or fork out myself.
I carried the bill to Gareth.
His eyes widened as he leafed through those pages. ‘The Cayman Islands!’ he said.
We confronted her with the bill that evening. The three of us were standing in the poky lounge. This was the first time I had ever had to question someone about money like this, to have something that needed to be settled. I was ready for a confrontation, ready to drown into the swirling mud of our psychedelic carpet.
‘I’ll pay it,’ Toni said, after flicking through the bill. ‘But I didn’t make all of these calls. I mean, some of them are mine, but not all of them. I didn’t make this call to the Cayman Islands.’
Her saying this blunted my relief. ‘Well, we didn’t make them,’ I said. After all, she was accusing us of making her pay for our calls. ‘I don’t know anyone in the Cayman Islands. Gareth doesn’t know page 16anyone in the Cayman Islands.’
‘I’ll pay for it,’ she said, frostily. We agreed that the phone bill would be transferred to her.
‘I don’t want to get expensive toll calls in my name,’ I said.
‘Okay, okay,’ she said, and at that moment the phone rang.
‘That’ll be the Cayman Islands,’ Gareth said.
Toni glared back at him as she reached for the phone.
Next came the beer. While letting Smoochie loose, I spotted three bottles of our home brew among the flotsam on her floor. She didn’t even drink—it was just something else to hoard. Gareth and I left a note on the scarred dining table: ‘We have noticed that our beer has been going missing . . .’
She responded with three bottles, unopened, and another note—a torn-off piece of cardboard box, all left in the exact same place on the table. In it she apologised. She knew it was a bad thing to do. ‘I don’t even like beer!’ (I had been right.) But it was her retribution for our insistence about the phone bill. ‘I just felt so angry that you didn’t trust me.’ She hoped everything would be better now.
‘Man, I feel really bad,’ Gareth said.
‘Yeah,’ I said, reading the note a second time.
Finally, there were the dogs. I manoeuvred my car up our narrow driveway, an unofficial driveway without a culvert. You needed to slow, then swing in to approach the pavement front on, rolling the wheels up over it. I managed this and the very narrow space between fence and house, a couple of inches on either side of each wing mirror.
And as I came into the backyard my car was surrounded by jumping, yelping dogs. Three of them. Smoochie, of course, but two more. Terriers or something like it. Smaller but louder. They circled me, leaping up at my shins as I got out of the car. I made it to the kitchen, where I fumbled to fill and flick on the jug as I watched them through the window. First one, then the other, ran page 17 to my back wheel, cocked a leg and pissed on it. Finally, Smoochie, corrupted by these two, did the same, or at least tried to. His gangly dimensions made lifting a leg impossible and instead he crouched just beside the wheel to relieve himself, the others howling their encouragement.
Gareth walked in.
‘Where did these come from?’ I said, with an attempted laugh. Shocked amusement seemed the only possible reaction.
But he had chosen anger, and he misread my response as acceptance. ‘Are you okay with this? Because I’m not. She said she was looking after them for someone else. It’s just supposed to be for a week, and it better be. She could have told us first.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, still taking this in. Gareth was as angry as I had ever seen him, so I added a second, more indignant, ‘Yeah!’
Over the next few days I came to share his anger. I watched Mama Puss huddling on the roof, unable to step into the yard. One of those dogs would bark all night; the slightest thing set him off. And one evening I had just gotten to sleep, much-needed sleep—I had an exam the next morning—when someone knocked on my window pane. It was Sam. He would tell me later what he saw: the front yard full of weeds, the howl of dogs and my silhouette dragging itself from bed and groping about for a dressing gown.
‘What’s going on? I’ve been trying to call you guys but there’s a message saying the number doesn’t work anymore.’
‘She will have done that,’ I said, half-asleep and unsurprised. I waved a hand towards the back of the house.
‘Where are all these dogs?’
‘Out the back. She’s got all these dogs.’
I took Mama Puss away on a day between exams, coaxing her into a box with some cat biscuits and driving her to my mother’s, where there was already one cat, but at least there were no dogs. Gareth and I made our own plans to leave. Exams were coming to an end, and we started to talk about going to Australia over the holidays. In any case, going somewhere else. Having adventures again and page 18getting away from this flat with its messes and dogs that, despite Toni’s claims, showed no sign of going anywhere.
We had already hinted to Toni that we would be leaving. When we confirmed it she said she’d stay and find another flatmate or two. I told Mrs Wilkinson by phone, and a couple of days later we went next door to see her about getting our bond back. As usual she was lurking about Rick’s. I had barely seen him, avoiding him since that party. The girl next door had left and been replaced by a man who worked nights. Mrs Wilkinson was in her usual mood. Bill lingered behind her while she complained.
‘It’s all very well for you,’ she said, ‘but I’m left with things.’ She went on to explain her reasons for racking up a whopping tax bill. ‘What?’ I said, cutting through her talk. ‘What are you saying?’ I just wanted to get our bond and get out.
‘And you’ve gone and left me with that Indian girl in there. I’ve already got problems with an Indian man at another flat. Bill says I’ll have all the Indians in Christchurch against me now.’
‘All the Indians,’ Bill said. ‘All the bloody Indians.’
I argued some more with her, but Gareth soon intervened. Taking a more conciliatory tone, he talked through the paperwork we had done, and asked if she could do hers.
She yielded, saying, ‘You’ll get your money,’ theatrically and with the usual hand-waving.
I went back to the house quivering and disgusted. They had been annoying before, of course, but never in a way that mattered. That flash of racism had ruined everything. Toni had ruined it too. I felt sorry for her, that we were leaving her with those two and their resentment. And I felt annoyed with myself—too stupid, too young to know that things end.
Gareth and I helped each other to move out. We borrowed his father’s trailer and loaded it up with our bicycles. I slung a rope over this tangle of chains and pedals, and we were tying it all down when the boy from the corner dairy came by, in his school uniform as always. He nodded to us as he approached.page 19
‘You’re losing your best customers,’ I said, letting the rope slacken.
He looked back, confused.
‘We’re moving out.’
‘You’re moving out?’
‘That one there,’ I said, pointing to Bill’s dripping 128.
‘Oh, okay. Well, bye.’
Gareth and I nodded back, then exchanged bemused looks. The kid hadn’t understood us. This really was goodbye. I finished knotting the rope and we got in the car and drove away.