In 1992 I lived at number 81 with two hippies, one cat and an abundance of large rats that were rarely seen but knew how to shake the fridge in the dark. The rats were fed on the compost heap the hippies kept at the back of the garden, a threadbare hedge separated us from Grey Lynn Park; an ocean of grass lapping up tiny hills to touch feet with people’s backyards.
Our house was a large wooden villa divided in two. Me and the hippies lived upstairs behind the frame of the porch, but a concrete path down the side of the house led to the back garden and a basement flat. Inside lived an artist with mirrored sunglasses and a drummer with pockmarked skin and subterranean dreadlocks.
The hippies – Melody and Stefan – wore tie-dyed clothes, didn’t shave and frowned upon bacon sandwiches and watching TV. I had just finished my first year at university and had a few long flowing skirts myself but I still liked the decadent taste of fried pig.
I spent my time painting cautionary watercolours waiting for my life to start. And then one Friday it did. Johnny, the artist, came up from downstairs. A painting of a girl with red hair floated in front of me. Where was she going? What was she doing? The front door had been left open and in the hallway the hippies art lifted off the wall gently in the breeze, prints of Polynesian flowers and happy looking fish.
I heard the sound of footsteps coming towards me. Johnny emerged in the kitchen, wearing a white shirt open at the neck, his tanned skin gleaming.
“Would you like to come downstairs and have a Schnapps?”
I had met Johnny once before when he turned up late, the tang of whiskey on his breath, his black work boots shaking the floorboards of the porch. I was sitting outside drinking herbal tea with the hippies. We had just eaten a huge festive plate of taboleuh, the carrot sticks and sheets of iceberg lettuce all savagely washed by Melody, the alpha-female of the house.
“Wow, big night out,” Melody laughed, waving her hand in front of her face.
“Just a couple of Shandys,” Johnny said.
“Do you have a light?” He plonked down next to me on the porch by the hydrangeas.
“We don’t smoke,” Melody said.
Johnny rolled a cigarette anyway. His fingers had a weathered rustic appeal. He licked the seam of the paper slowly.
“You have hydrangea in your hair.” He pulled the small blue flower out from behind my ear and placed it on his knee.
“It looks good against denim,” he said.
It was true. The faded blue cotton matched the pale blue petals.
“So Johnny what have you been up to lately?” Melody asked.
“This and that.” He looked at her and smiled. “Have you got a light?”
“Would you like a glass of water?” Stefan asked. “We have some Chi inside?”
Johnny shook his head. “All I want is this cigarette.”
He held the cigarette out. “It’s perfect, don’t you think?”
Stray bits of tobacco fell out of its spindly white body.
“It looks like a caterpillar in a cocoon,” I said.
“Yes, I spose it does.” Johnny smiled.
I saw myself dimly reflected in his large brown eyes. The outline of my long hair, my pale face.
“It’s a full moon tonight,” he said.
In the sky above Williamson Avenue, I could only see the bright yellow streetlight above our house and a few stars twinkling in the distance like diamantes.
“I always know when it’s a full moon,” Johnny said. “It makes people do foolish things.”
“Have you done something foolish?” I asked.
“Not yet,” Johnny laughed. The cigarette wobbled on his lower lip, I wondered if he even remembered it was there.
“How’s Pippa?” Stefan asked.
“Pippa? Johnny’s shoulders seemed to slope into his chest. “I don’t know.”
“That’s a shame.”
But I knew Stefan didn’t really think it was a shame. I had heard him and Melody talking about the absence of Pippa’s pea-green car outside the house, her peroxide head had not passed down the lilting concrete path to the bottom flat for over a month.
“Yes, it is a shame,” Johnny said and he stared out at the street in silence for so long I thought he’d gone to sleep.
“Nettle tea?” Melody poured another cup and I sipped away at it gingerly, even though it was cold and tasted like a wet sock.
She poured Johnny a cup too from her homemade terracotta teapot with the wicker handle. That seemed to bring him round.
“What is this?” He spat a mouth full into the flax beside the porch.
“Nettle tea,” Melody said.
“Jesus, I thought it was whiskey,” Johnny laughed.
Somehow we all got on to talking about Play School.
“Big Ted and Little Ted, what a couple of fruits,” Johnny said.
“I liked Manu best,” Melody said, the black plastic doll in the purple dress.
“I liked Jemima,” I said. Only because she was a redhead and I alone knew what a serious condition that was. Jemima – the rag doll with the floppy white body and long strands of orange wool for hair.
Johnny leaned over. “I always thought Jemima was dangerous. She was the type of girl who would run off with a biker gang.”
“Let me get you that light.” I sprung up and raced inside, touched Johnny’s cigarette to the gas oven and watched the ember flare (orange) but when I got outside he was gone.
“Just as well,” Melody said.
I thought about Johnny all week, listened for the sound of his footsteps along the path, sat on the couch on the porch pretending to read, my face hovering above the hydrangeas. Melody and Stefan tut-tutted about the empty bottles of beer and spirits that lined the rubbish bin and the loud music that emanated from the basement flat in the early hours of the morning.
Johnny’s music was different to Melody and Stefan’s. Johnny listened to The Pogues and PJ Harvey and Iggy Pop. I could hear their demons being summoned into his house, the dense surges of black and blue music. It was the kind of music that could bruise you in all the right places and I had the kind of white malleable skin that longed to be bruised.
“It’s Friday night, come downstairs and have a Schnapps,” Johnny said.
I put my paintbrush down and packed my watercolours back in the box.
Johnny’s flat had a naïve painting of Saturn on the wall, a rickety wooden table and a long blue couch. The stereo was the only appliance that worked in that place. The needle spun around picking up dust and electricity.
Johnny reached for my hand and smelt my fingertips.
“Turpentine. I knew you were an oil painter.”
I blushed thinking about my watercolours upstairs.
He picked up a record, blew off the dust and spun it round in his hands. “I want to play this for you.”
A man’s scratchy voice rose out from under the needle.
I held out my shot glass.
“If they got rid of that compost heap there wouldn’t be any rats,” Johnny said.
“Exactly.” It was the most sensible suggestion I’d heard in weeks.
“Let’s make a toast,” Johnny turned up the volume on the stereo. “To the hippies.”
“Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” he asked.
A violent banging echoed from the kitchen floor upstairs and the bare bulb shook on its axis.
“Maybe we should go out?” I said.
Johnny held the empty Schnapps bottle upside down. “Maybe we should.”
Somehow we made it up the path beside the house until we reached Johnny’s tiny shuddering car that had appeared out of nowhere: a benevolent plastic T-Rex fastened to the dashboard.
“I didn’t know you could drive,” I said.
“Neither did I,” Johnny said.
Maybe we crawled along Williamson Avenue, maybe we flew. Down into the crushed velvet spectacle of bars, darkness clinging to the walls like mushroom soup.
“I want to sit with you on the sofa.”
We sat together on a soft red seat.
I woke up in his single bed. The sun shone dimly through the shutters of his windows. A spaceship hung from a string on the ceiling. A skull ashtray sat on the bedside table, a litre of ash in its eyes. Plastic toys from Kinder Eggs fell on top of one another along the windowsill. A huge poster of some woman’s breast flanked the side of the bed. And on the floor were some of Johnny’s sculptures, amoeba-ish looking shapes made out of plastic and metal, the frightened faces of squashed toys hidden inside.
He had only kept one of Pippa’s sculptures. Pippa was of course an artist. A wooden heart complete with carved arteries. It had a small tape deck inserted in the back that played Elvis songs.
Pippa: how could one woman’s name sound so evocative?
“Do you think she’s sexy?” Johnny asked.
I nodded. My own heart was kept on ice or maybe it was the Schnapps? I had only seen Pippa once from behind, a tall woman with a blue bandana wrapped around her hair. In my mind she was Courtney Love. And who was I? Jemima.
It was the summer holidays from University and I spent my days cleaning a local hotel. We listened to Leonard Cohen every morning.
“People who say Leonard Cohen’s depressing are depressing,” Johnny said.
I brought Johnny presents that I found on my voyages through the hotel. A blue bear plucked out of the rubbish bin. A single rose left on an unmade bed. I was given a few gifts myself. A crocodile brooch covered in glitter from Johnny and a host of self-help books left discreetly outside my door by Melody.
Women Who Love Too Much
You Can Heal Your Life
I’m Okay, You’re Okay
I slid the books beneath my bed; that forgotten realm, the Indian bedspread covered in peacocks didn’t smell like me anymore and it certainly didn’t smell like Johnny who couldn’t be lured out from beneath his own duvet.
“Let’s sleep in my room tonight.”
“Why?” Johnny asked.
“Just for a change.”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“Why not?” I traced the P that had been carved into his rickety wooden table. How long had it been there?
“The hippies,” Johnny said.
His friends were a pic mix of lollies: a lanky woman who wore a dog’s studded collar around her neck; Thomas, his flat mate, with black silences, brooding eyes and even darker eyebrows. His small box-like bedroom seemed to exist in another dimension.
And then there were the guys in ratty T-shirts with stringy arms and greasy hair cooking up on the stove. Silver teaspoons, a circle of smoke rising from the element, Johnny disappearing into the bathroom taking off the belt of his jeans.
“Don’t you find it strange?” one of his friends asked me.
Find what strange? I wondered.
On the weekends before he went to work we drank strong coffee and sat at the wooden table listening to Leonard Cohen.
“People who say Leonard Cohen’s depressing are depressing,” Johnny said.
I didn’t say anything. I was a housemaid who wore a grey tunic with a zip down the front and Mary Jane shoes. I spent hours cleaning bathrooms and mirrors where my freckled face stared back like a stranger in a film, the cloth wiping the dust on the surface back and forth. Sometimes I read the guests diaries. I found one about a young man who wanted to tell his family he was gay. I perched on the bed looking at his handwriting slope down the page. Minutes passed. Then hours. Somewhere along Williamson Avenue Johnny was doing whatever he did when I was away. What did he do when I was away?
He had taken to wearing a piece of rope round his neck like a hangman cut loose from the noose. The rope was offset by his white shirt and linen pants. Melody said he looked like he had just escaped from a mental hospital.
He never wanted to have sex unless it was late at night and I always had the feeling that he was falling down into my body or maybe I was falling into his? Muffled and shy, a fumbling of fingers.
Afterwards, Johnny would say, “take this,” and hold out a tiny pill.
“What is it?”
“It will help you sleep.”
And it did. Then I would fumble for my grey tunic on the floor and tumble out onto the street in morning, the birds calling to one another above the first cars while Johnny was still curled up beneath the duvet.
“All I want is two years with some nice photos at the end,” I said.
I pinned my favourite picture to the wall beside his bed: an illustration of Alice in Wonderland holding a baby that had turned into a pig. I bleached my hair blonde and took to wearing his clothes. The satin shirt Pippa had given him for his 30th birthday felt cool and slippery against my skin.
“It makes you look glamorous.” Johnny stroked the sleeve.
He bought me an old pair of work boots to paint in though I never did any painting. Sometimes he’d polish the boots for me, sitting at my feet with the dark brown nugget, that fumy smell wafting out of the tin.
On my days off we’d sit on his doorstep in the sun watching the rats dart in and out of the compost heap, the smell of black coffee percolating, the sun high over Williamson Avenue; a cigarette burning a hole in the sky.
Sometimes when I got back from work there was something different in the atmosphere, two cigarette butts in the ashtray, cheek to cheek. The trace of red lipstick blotted on a piece of toilet paper. Or a different toy on the table beside Johnny’s bed: something new had hatched out of the Kinder Egg.
“What do you think of this?” Johnny held up a plastic figurine of a cowboy with his hands burnt off.
“Stumpy Malone, he has no hands but he’s the fastest drawer in the West.” Johnny laughed.
“Has Pippa been around?” I touched the P on the table.
‘Why?” Johnny asked.
‘Nothing. I just wondered.”
In the morning I called out, “come back to bed.”
I could hear him moving about in the kitchen and the clang of the coffee machine. I noticed he didn’t put on Leonard Cohen, he chose Chris Isaac instead.
What a wicked thing to say, you never felt that way.
I burrowed further under the covers and held Blue Bear against my face. Then stared at Stumpy Malone, the burned off plastic stumps where his hands should have been. The skull ashtray may as well have been an hourglass; I could count out the evening by the number of Johnny’s cigarettes. I threw back the duvet and got dressed.
Johnny came and stood in the doorway drinking his coffee. He was wearing the rope around his neck again. The knot had frayed.
“You’ve got quite small breasts.”
I looked down at my pale chest and then at his poster.
“It’s Valentine’s Day soon,” I said. “What shall we do?”
“Pippa’s having a fancy dress party,” Johnny said.
“What are you going to go as?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go as myself,” he chuckled.
“Am I invited?”
“Of course, why wouldn’t you be?”
In the end Johnny decided to go as a cowboy complete with water pistols and I was going as a sauced up version of Alice in Wonderland. We found an old fifties frock and doused it in blue paint, then painted on a white apron afterwards so I looked like I was kitted out in vinyl. I even made a paper mache pig. It took me a week to finish the pig. I pasted newspaper and gooey gray glue over a blown up balloon. I fashioned little ears out of cardboard and used four toilet rolls for its little piggy feet. Finally I came to the tail. What could I use to make a tail?
“There are loads of pipe cleaners at the café. I’ll bring you one home,” Johnny said. “A pink one.”
“Do you promise you won’t forget?”
“I promise,” he said.
On Valentine’s Day I waited upstairs in the hippies house. The fridge creaked and groaned under the weight of all those vegetables. Sandflies danced around the compost bucket. Melody had recently bought a cat from the SPCA and it came in and looked at me like a stranger. It was Friday night and I could hear the traffic rushing up Williamson Avenue towards Grey Lynn where the cars would fan out over West Auckland, into the suburbs full of houses and hospitals, kids and schools, husbands and wives living normal lives. Whatever normal was. The painted dress was stiff and uncomfortable against my skin. And my red roots were already starting to grow back. Melody didn’t think that blonde hair suited me but I looked like Alice and that was the main thing.
I sat at the table for a long time with my paper mache pig. I half expected it to turn into a baby I waited so long. Outside, darkness swallowed the park and all the houses one by one until the streetlights came on. My stomach sank in that rickety chair. I strained to hear the sound of Johnny’s boots flying down the path beside the house or better still a loud rap at the door, “would you like a Schnapps?”
I wandered up the hallway and out on to the porch. I looked up and down Williamson Avenue. I thought of Stefan’s song, the little ditty he made up on his banjo.
“I can’t sleep in the nighttime
I can’t wake in the daytime
I ain’t got a job
I ain’t got a degree
I ain’t got nothing to lose
I’ve got the Williamson Avenue Blues.”
The enormous flax plant next to our house seemed full of a dense dark sadness. I wanted to wrap myself inside its leaves and climb down inside it. Art school was going to start up again in a couple of weeks but I didn’t care anymore. I couldn’t bare for Melody and Stefan to come home and find me sitting on the porch alone.
I took Johnny’s key out from under his door, opened it and crept into his flat. The moon played upon the walls like the sea. I could hear the distant tide of traffic. I saw things I hadn’t noticed before, the mildew creeping over the kitchen ceiling, the spring of the couch glimpsed through a hole in the fabric, the letter P sharply etched into the wooden table. P is for Pippa. I traced my finger over it and felt the groove it made. Now it seemed obvious, she had carved it there herself.
There was a peculiar silence in the flat. I was aware of the rustle of my painted blue dress as I inched towards his bedroom door. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, the dress foggy in the dust-streaked glass. Your famous blue raincoat is torn at the shoulder. I collected my things from around the edge. My picture of Alice holding her pig, the first cigarette I had rolled with a star sticker attached to it, my B cup bra burrowed down inside his bed. They seemed like such small things to take back. I saw the stanley knife lying on the bedside table next to Stumpy Malone. We had used it to slice up the cardboard for my pig. I picked it up and wound out the blade. Silver and sharp. I ran it along my inner arms and pressed it in deep, like puncturing a tyre. The blade stung but it was a good sting. The pain sharpened me. I watched the blood trickle in the dark. The light through the windows tinted my skin grey and I shivered. Was that a sound on the path outside? The rustle of the flax? Was it Johnny and Pippa coming home, their faces flushed with love?
I tensed, forced myself to walk to the bedroom door. My head felt light; the kitchen was bathed in blue. I could see the garden out the window, the compost heap quietly congealing. On the windowsill lay one rusty teaspoon, not two. Maybe there was hope? I listened for footsteps.
Then a pot clattered to the floor and a large white rat scuttled out from under the sink. It stiffened when it saw me and sniffed the air. The rat was a milky colour like a piece of the moon sent down to balm me. Its moist eyes regarded me, sizing me up.
I was still holding the Stanley knife and my arms stung from the cuts.
“How long have you been hurting yourself?”
For a moment I thought the rat had spoken to me, then I realized it was Thomas, standing in the shadow of his bedroom doorway wearing a black shirt and leather pants as though he had grown out of the darkness.
“Come here.” He took the knife from me, put it on the bench. He washed my arms under the tap in the sink.
“You’re lucky that knife is blunt.” His cheeks were hollow, dense pockmarks stained his dark skin. He lit a cigarette, went to the bathroom and came back with a roll of white bandages.
“What did you think you were doing?”
I stared at my dress.
“How old are you?”
“Do you know how old Johnny is?”
I did know, but I didn’t care what it meant.
He wrapped my arms in the bandages tightly. His fingers were strong. It must be from playing the drums. When he finished he pulled a beer out of the fridge and opened it.
“Have a sip.”
The beer tasted cold and frothy.
The blood rose to the surface of the white bandages as though it was an abstract painting take shape, blooming, covering the canvas. For a moment I felt strangely satisfied, light and weightless as though I could run a marathon.
Melody picked me up from the hospital. “You’re lucky you didn’t need stitches,” she said. I stared out of the car window and watched the villas along the street appear out of the dawn. I went into my room – it may as well have been a closet – and lay face down on my bed too stunned to even cry. My paintings had faded on the wall. I hadn’t touched a paintbrush in months. Except to paint the pig. I was sinking below Williamson Avenue; some essential part of myself had been stripped back. I felt like a potato peel, a scrap on the compost heap. What would happen next? Would I be absorbed into the soil and fertilize some patch of grass to be born again as something light and indifferent: a daisy or a daffodil?
I quit the hotel, left my Mary Jane shoes and tunic in my locker. I wore long sleeved shirts until the cuts on my arms healed. I took a course at Youthline. The hospital had referred me. The group was facilitated by a young man who told me I could lose a few pounds and make an Anita McNaught transformation. I watched Anita McNaught’s deep brown lips reading out the news at 6pm. I wondered if she liked bacon sandwiches? At night I cried myself to sleep, rocking my body back and forth. In the morning Chris Isaac blasted out of Johnny’s bedroom and I wore green florescent earplugs. I knew Pippa was down there with him. If I sat on the porch for long enough, huddled down between the flax plant and hydrangeas, I might even see her stride towards Johnny’s house, the keys to the door jingling in her hand.
The hippies were full of advice.
“He can have as many unhealthy relationships as he likes,” Melody said. “Besides you only went out for two and a half months. Maybe you should move out, find a new flat.”
“One that isn’t on Williamson Ave.” Stefan held up the frying pan. “After all we did say it was a vegetarian flat.”
The day I moved out Melody’s cat caught a large white rat and left it lying half-dead in the kitchen. Melody rustled about in her long hippy skirt and Indian ankle chain, she scolded the cat, but she didn’t seem that upset. Not for a vegetarian.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
She produced a bucket from under the sink, took it outside and turned the hose on full blast. The water swirled around the bucket, foaming against the rim.
“Drowning is a good way to die,” Melody said.
I wondered how she knew.
She brought the rat outside on a spade. Its eyes were closed but it was still breathing. The white fur of its chest rose up and down and its whiskers quivered.
“This is the end,” Melody said.
As soon as the rat hit the water it surged to life, struggling and scrambling against the force of the spade, claws rasping against the plastic bucket. Its nose poked out, mouth gasping for air, whiskers drenched. The eyes kept rolling back in its head. Melody held it under with the spade. The bucket rocked, surges of water sloshed over the sides until the rat stopped moving. It sank to the bottom like a discarded shoe.
“Fucking hell,” Melody said.
Her skirt was wet and blood dripped from the bottom of the spade, where it had dug into the rat. She let the spade fall against the side of the house.
“I need a beer after that.”
She marched inside, then the cat came out, circled the bucket, put its nose over the edge and tested the water with a calico paw.
“Bugger off,” I said.
All my boxes were lined up on the porch. Soon my new flatmates – the lesbians – would roll up in their station wagon with Guernica painted on the side and take me to my new flat. But I couldn’t bear to leave the rat soaking in that bucket.
I found a pair of rubber gloves, grabbed its wet body in one hand and the spade in the other. Then I took off down the path towards Johnny’s flat and the back garden. It was autumn now. There were no clothes on the line and I couldn’t see anyone moving through the shutters of his room. Leaves lay on the grass in the back garden and I could hear kids playing in the park; the creak of swings and the sound of skateboards rolling up and down the curve of the rink. The sky was pink, the first stars of the evening glimmered faintly and in the middle of the sky, a pale yellow moon.
I noticed the door to Johnny’s flat was open. The lawn smelt of moist grass. My shoulders tensed. Wasn’t this what I wanted? To see him again? To be seen?
I chose a spot in the corner of the garden away from the compost heap, lay the rat on the grass and began to dig. The spade sounded loud as it sifted through the dirt. I glanced at his door out of the corner of my eye. A large chocolate hole formed in front of me. It seemed there could be no hole big enough for that rat.
Until I heard his voice ring out from the door, bemused. “What are you doing?”
“I’m burying a rat.”
He walked over the grass in his bare feet and looked down.
“So you are.”
It seemed like forever since I had seen his face. He looked tired, there was a crease on his brow. His tan was deeper, his lips wet from the whiskey.
“Melody killed it.”
We both peered into the grave.
“Do you think the hole is big enough yet?”
“I want to make sure the cat doesn’t dig it back up again.”
Johnny took another sip from his glass.
I slid the spade under the rat and gently lowered its body into the hole.
“Perhaps we should have some kind of ceremony,” Johnny said.
‘I don’t know. I’ll pick some flowers, you can say a eulogy.”
I poured dirt over the hole until the rat disappeared. Then I patted down the earth with my bare hands. Johnny went away and brought back some hydrangeas. He arranged them on the grave.
We stood solemnly over the mound of earth. The sky now the dark-blue colour of nighttime. I could feel the chill of frosts to come. I could hardly make out Johnny’s features anymore. Just the white of his shirt, the faint shine of the glass he was holding. I could smell him – the peculiar smell that belongs just to each person – more than the shampoo in his hair or the deodorant on his skin; the uniqueness of him.
You know he’s a junkie, Melody said.
“I’m not as strong as you think I am,” Johnny said.
The night felt like an ocean around us.
“What do you mean?”
I put my hand out and touched his face. Warm. I stroked the stubble along his chin. Johnny took another sip of his drink. “Why don’t you say a few words?”
I stood over the grave and collected my thoughts.
“Rat, we do not know your name or the quality of life you have experienced here on Williamson Ave. We can only hope you enjoyed the delicacies of the compost heap – most of the food was organically grown – and that you enjoyed shaking the fridge in the dark. I’m sorry you had to die such a prolonged death but you should know that you fought nobly and were brave until the end. Melody said drowning is a nice way to die, I hope it was. Rest in peace.”
“Amen,” Johnny said.
I left Johnny then and it was a long time before I saw another rat.
I’d like to say I moved on swiftly, fell in love with a man who didn’t drink or take drugs (not even valium to help him sleep.) In my second year of art school, I dressed as Alice once more. Cut a video of myself blue-screened against illustrations from the book. In the video, I kept on getting bigger and smaller and bigger again. I put a Waylon Jennings song over the top, I’ve Always Been Crazy but It’s Kept Me From Going Insane. Eventually, I stopped dying my hair blonde and later I heard through the grapevine that Johnny was alone again. Once I even saw him walking down Williamson Ave, he wasn’t wearing the rope around his neck anymore. Even then, years later, I was tempted to jump off the bus at the next stop and run after him…but something held me back.