He Died with a Felafel in His Hand
He died with a felafel in his hand. We found him on a bean bag with his chin resting on the top button of a favourite flannelette shirt. He’d worn the shirt when we’d interviewed him for the empty room a week or so before. We were having one of those bad runs, where you seem to interview about thirty people every day and they are all total zipper heads. We really took this guy in desperation. He wasn’t A-list, didn’t have a microwave or anything like that, and now both he and the felafel roll were cold. Our first dead housemate. At least we got some bond off him.
We had no idea he was a junkie, otherwise we would never have given him the room. You let one junkie in the house and you may as well let them all in. We had another secret junkie live with us once. Melissa. She was okay, but her boyfriend stole all of my CDs. Told me some Jap guy, a photographer, took them and if I went to Kinselas on Wednesday nights I could probably find him there. Yeah right.
Melissa, on the other hand, ran a credit scam out of the same house. Months after she’d left, a couple of debt collectors came round looking for Rowan Corcoran. That was the identity she’d set up, but we didn’t know that. We were very helpful, because bills had been turning up for this Corcoran prick for months. We didn’t know who he was, just some mystery guy racking up thousands of dollars in debt and sending the bills to our place. We sat the debt collectors down in the living room with a cup of tea. Showed them all the other bills that had been arriving for Mr Corcoran. When they saw that the last bill was for two Qantas tickets to America their shoulders sort of slumped. I’ve still got those bills. $35,000 worth.
But Melissa was okay. In fact she was a real babe. She used to steal food for the house from this restaurant she worked in. (If you’re reading this, Melissa, we really appreciated the food.) There were four or five of us living at Kippax Street at that stage. Everyone was on the dole or Austudy or minimum wage. The house was typical Darlinghurst, this huge, dark, damp terrace with yellowed ceilings, green carpet with cigarette burns and brown, torn-up furniture.
We’d sit around on Tuesday night waiting for Melissa to get home with our stolen dinner. She usually walked through the door just before Twin Peaks came on, so there was this nice warm feeling in the house as we all sat in front of the teev scarfing down the free stuff. On a good night, when someone’s cheque had come through, we’d have a couple of beers to share round. And on a great night when someone, usually Melissa, had scored, we’d pull out the bucket bong and get completely whacked. On those nights, that nice warm feeling was really close. It wrapped you up like your Dad’s old jumper, kept you safe. On those nights, you could delude yourself that share housing, which is all about deprivation and economic necessity, was really about something else: a friendly sort of half-sensible descendant of the communal ideal. But it never lasts. Never holds together. Somebody always moves on, or loses their mind, or dies with a felafel in his hand and you’re on the road again.
That was the dead guy’s name. It got away from me for a minute there, but I knew it started with a ‘J’. He died watching Rage with the sound turned down. One of the hip young inner-city cops who turned up to investigate said he probably snuffed it halfway through the hot one hundred. Just like a junkie. There was a nightclub stamp on his wrist, bruises up and down his arm. The felafel’s chilli and yoghurt sauce had leaked from the roll and run down his hand in little white rivulets. For a brief, perverse moment it seemed to me that he himself had sprung a leak, a delicate stream of liquid heroin escaping from the seams of his fingers.
I’ve seen a hundred lives pass through the bleary kind of sleep-deprived landscape of a dozen different share houses, but Jeffrey’s was the only one that ever fetched up and died on a bean bag. The others all moved along on their own weird trajectories. They were never still. Everybody was constantly mobile or wanting to be – moving targets, random drifters and people whose lives rested on nothing more stable than inertia. Dead souls every one. Some of them now work for gigantic weapons corporations or drug cartels. They’ve got these incredible lives. Jet travel. Credit cards. Respect, even fear, from those top-hatted guys who stand in front of the Hyatt. But if they were housemates of mine, I’ve seen them bludging meals from the Krishnas. Or sitting on the lounge room floor in home-brand underwear with all the windows blacked out and hundreds of candles pushing back the dark. Not doing much. Just sitting there. Or smashing five hundred empty beer bottles into a million jagged pieces on the kitchen floor while greying mincemeat patties slowly peel away from the ceiling … slowly, slowly, slowly … then plop – impaled on the waiting fangs of glass below. Or sitting in front of the television for two days straight, with giant frilled lizards clinging to their shoulders, a bowl of magic mushrooms by their feet, their weeping bloodshot eyes the shape of little rectangles.
Madness, as one flatmate of mine used to say with just a hint of satisfaction in his voice. Things get out of control all the time in share houses. It’s not just a matter of the rent slipping behind, or the washing piling up. People flip over the line. Way over. I know about this. Been there myself a couple of times. One place, Duke Street – home of the smashed stubbies and falling patties – was nothing but a madhouse. A huge rambling kind of place, an ex-brothel, we all thought, because there were so many rooms in there. A lot of them looked like they had been jerry-built at some stage. Bedrooms where bedrooms shouldn’t ought to be and so on. We were paying $11 a week each between the ten or eleven of us living there. We were never completely sure of the number because of the continual drop-ins and disappearances and the strange case of Satomi Tiger.
I just know you’re thinking – what the hell is a Satomi Tiger? Well, we’re sitting on the lino floor of the living room one night – actually we had two living rooms in this weird house, but we turned the other one into a basketball court – and we’re watching teev, as usual. And this Japanese girl walks in wearing these audacious tiger-striped pants and a poo-brown imitation dead fur thing. ‘Good Ev-en-ing,’ she says. ‘I move in now.’ And that was all. She had no other English. She drops a wad of cash on the teev and wanders off to find a room. We’re all just sitting there thinking ‘What the hell is this?’ But then again, she’s dropped this wad on the teev so who cares?
We found out later that Satomi Tiger had met our invisible flatmate Tim on his last trip to Asia, the one which ended up with him being investigated for espionage and committed to an insane asylum in Hong Kong. You can see Tim in the mini-series Bangkok Hilton. He plays three different bit parts, most notably that of a drunken buffoon in a boat. A frighteningly accurate performance. Tim escaped from the asylum with the help of a friend, also called Tim, but he was always a little elsewhere afterwards. He’d met Satomi Tiger in Japan and invited her to visit him in Queensland. She took him up on the offer. Only thing was, we never really knew where Tim was at any given moment. When Satomi Tiger arrived, rumour had him cutting cane in the north. Whatever. It didn’t bother her, and it didn’t really bother us. It was that kind of house. The set-up with the rent, for instance, was mondo suspicious. We’d send a cash cheque every two or three weeks to this post office box in the western suburbs, deep in serial killer territory. We’d never get any receipts but we never got any hassles either. There was a phone number to call in emergencies, which we used when the bathroom looked like it was going to fall off the end of the house one time, but there would only be this spooky message at the other end.
‘There’s no one here,’ click, brrrrrrrrrr …….
At that stage, I’d quit my job in Canberra and was kicking around Brisbane, wasting my life again. Duke Street seemed the perfect place for it. The floating population, the lack of furniture, the crazy tilting floors, the freight train line which ran through the back yard, the hallucinogenic mushrooms in the front yard, the tree which grew through the bedroom window, the constant low grade harassment by the Department of Social Security, the week long drinking binges, the horror, the horror.
Early in my stay there, I took a four week job as a typist with the Department of Primary Industries. They had these reports that were seven years overdue. I’m not joking. They stressed this point to me. Seven years. Probably dog years too. So I’m bashing away on a word processor, getting into the Zen of typing because it’s so dull if I actually stop to think what I’m doing, my head will implode and I’ll be this sultana-headed guy walking around town. Anyway, after a while I look around the typing pool and I get this huge Fear. This Fear grabs me by the heart and squeezes like a bastard for three days straight. It’s saying This Is Your Life. So I enrol in Law at Queensland University.
God, I hated it. A few weeks into semester the first assignment is due. I’ve already missed a few classes and my notes aren’t that great. I’m surrounded by these carnivorous teenagers, fresh-smelling, label-wearing, beady-eyed little ratbastards who never lend me their notes. On the day I’ve set aside to do this assignment, I can’t find anything, not even the question sheet and I flip over the line. I start screaming. It sounds like something from the jungle or a subterranean prison for the criminally insane where all the inmates have devolved into these lower forms. They don’t even look human any more and they’re taking messages straight from the brain stem, primitive reptilian urgings. I’ve got this working through me. I kick a hole in the wall and pick up a golf club and charge into the living room and start laying about me and letting go with more of the monster screeches. Well the other guys in the house, they’ve been there. They sort of hang back and watch the show. Get a beer from the fridge, that sort of thing. And eventually I do calm down. I’m not that fit, and my arms go tired and I deflate like an old balloon. I realise everybody is watching me, grinning hugely. I shrug. Means nothing. An hour later we found Satomi Tiger hiding in a cupboard. She’d never stay in the same room as me after that.
Madness, you see. Things getting out of control. It’s one of the constants of share housing. Now I’ll allow that most of the time it doesn’t get to the stage of kicking out walls and terrifying obscure tiger-suited Japanese girls, but it’s always there, a sort of chaotic potential snaking about under the surface of things, rearing its head only briefly in the course of arguments over phone bills or cleaning up.
Like, I used to share a flat with a bank clerk called Derek. Derek the bank clerk pitched a tent, literally, on the living room floor. The house budget needed one more rent payer but had no more rooms, and Derek the bank clerk needed a place to stay but was kind of a tight-arse about money. So he builds this tent thing in the corner of the living room and pays half-rent. Crawls into this thing at night. Crawls out of it in the morning. A real fringe-dwelling bank clerk. It worked for a while. But Derek was very territorial. Used to gradually creep that tent across the floor into the television-watching area. Liked to poke his head out of the flaps and watch the ABC. During the day, when he was gone, I’d push it back. At night, he’d creep it out again. It started small at first, a few inches one way, a few inches back. But the confrontation went on. He’d jump his border out a whole foot. I’d push it back a metre. He’d take two metres. I’d break a tent pole. And the whole time, never a word was spoken. It was a lucky thing we didn’t keep guns in the house. You could feel it moving towards a bloody climax, but fortunately the bank transferred him and this taxi driver moved in. We said, ‘No tents, taxi driver, just throw a mattress here on the floor.’ That was cool with him. He liked being in the centre of things. But it raised another problem, made it difficult to keep the flat tidy.
I have to jump a couple of houses here and tell you that the worst place I ever lived, absolutely the dirtiest filthiest place, was King Street. A rat died in the living room at King Street and we didn’t know. There was at least six inches of compacted crap between our feet and the floor. Old Ratty must have crawled in there and died of pleasure. A visitor uncovered him while groping about for a beer. I don’t want to go into detail on King Street yet but remind me later to tell you about the open door policy in the toilet, and the pubic hair competition and how the kitchen got so bad we had to do all of our cooking in the back yard.
You shouldn’t get the idea that all share houses are like that though. I’ve lived in some beautiful places. Really I have. Mostly they stayed that way because women lived there too. Not always, but mostly. I don’t want to be sexist about this, but there’s something about men living together that unleashes the Beast.
Gay guys are okay to live with on that score. They’re hyper-clean. Problem is, they’re also hypersensitive about the gay thing. I had a housemate come out on me once. This guy, Dirk, appeared in the living room at one or two in the morning when I was putting the moves on this girl Nina, who also lived there. There were tear tracks on his face as he stood there staring at us. I was giving this Nina a foot massage at the time, I mean, really giving her the works so I didn’t notice him at first. But he starts snuffling and kind of whimpering and we spin around. I’ve got this girl’s foot in my lap and there’s old Dirk, sort of staring and snuffling and of course I think, uh oh, old Dirk’s got a thing for Nina. The moment’s destroyed as you can imagine, and then Dirk says, ‘I’m gay.’
Whew! What a relief.
SAVE MONEY. EAT LESS
Now I can see old Dirk is doing it tough. And I like to think myself a broad-minded sort of guy. So I say to him, ‘Hey. Always thought you were.’ At the time, it passes for male sensitivity. Anyway Nina sits through the horrors of the night with him and I get to go to bed dreaming of her soft, milky white feet. I ask you, who got the raw end of the deal? Funny thing is, Nina and Dirk hated each other. They were always having these knock-down drag-out scream-o-ramas about stuff like whether the tuna chunks went in the cupboard or the fridge.
Nina moved out shortly after that, so this other girl Emma and I got to live with Dirk while he was coming to terms with his sexuality. The trouble wasn’t with him being gay (we did pass a house by-law that banned kissing and fondling on the lounge room couch, but it applied to all sexual orientations). The trouble was that we didn’t care he was gay. So we’d say these brutal things which he’d pick up on his sophisticated gay radar. We’d say, ‘How about cleaning the shower, Dirk?’ and he’d decode it as, ‘You filthy little arse-bandits should all be nailed to a tree.’
Do you think we could get old Dirk to clean that bathroom? No way. He wasn’t buying into any heterofascist sterility conspiracy. ‘Gay men are dying,’ he’d screech at a bemopped Em on cleaning day. He eventually inherited half a million dollars and moved out to set up a gay men’s retreat in northern Queensland. Hope his gay brothers put him straight about the cleaning thing.
Don’t know how Dirk would have coped with finding Jeffrey the junkie all cold and blue and sprawled over the bean bag. An actual dead guy as opposed to the rhetorical gay ones which littered his post-closet conversation. Seeing as Dirk never surfaced before Donahue, I guess it would have been academic even if he and Jeffrey had lived under the same roof. One thing’s for sure. He wouldn’t have cleaned up the mess, so he wouldn’t have found the thousand bucks Jeffrey had stashed away in his room. The cops told us to stay out of there until the science guys had come around to check it out properly but we snuck in about ten minutes after they left. It didn’t take very long to find the cash rolled up and hidden away in the battery compartment of his ghetto blaster and since he’d lied to us about being a junkie and brought a world of hassles down on our home we figured it was only fair that Jeffrey make this posthumous contribution to the kitty.
a modern aesthetic