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The first flat is the deepest

Monday 11th May 2015

Flatting sometimes leads to living in some mercilessly odd places.


I moved into my first flat the day the state of Victoria burned to the ground, and left the day I saw crack being dealt in the lounge room. I was nineteen and instead of bus routes or whiteware I was desperately seeking boys, backyards and a sense of home, filtered through adventure.

The adventure was enhanced by my shift across the Tasman but flatting held a glossy allure nonetheless. I didn’t, however, really choose to move from home – I had no home to speak of and as a student at the start of a long career in dropout academia, flatting was the only financially viable option.

The $125 a week I paid in rent occasionally left me without much in the way of food, although I always seemed to be able to afford a night out, and my wardrobe was ever expanding. Nourishment, however, seemed secondary and thus I grew incredibly creative with flour and pasta.

But I was, for the most part, incredibly happy about it. I grew up hearing all about my parents’ days flatting and watching teenage babysitters evolve into housing independence. I built a dream around this kind of ramshackle adulthood. And, for a while, with the requisite moldy showers and hungover Sundays, the dream was realised. 

The spider-embossed ceilings and stained carpets meant little in the face of friendship and yes, we made bad decisions but we always got each other home.

Those first three flatmates and I formed a strange little family based on the dual principles of debauchery and Australia’s Next Top Model. Just around the corner lived another flat full of bogan boys who came over daily (several of whom I dated).

In the bright moments, it was kind of like Friends and in the dark moments, there was always a shoulder to cry on. The spider-embossed ceilings and stained carpets meant little in the face of friendship and yes, we made bad decisions but we always got each other home. There was no way we could be lonely.

The flat ended, of course. Those boys that I lived with were part of a high school conglomerate they labeled “The Smack”, who banded together over the drinking of an entire crate of beer (each, in one sitting), calling in sick to work on Monday because they were still raging after a sleepless weekend and, of course, objectifying the “ladies”. 

When the time eventually came for my departure, I was so bitter that I selected a bland unit in the suburb of Blackburn, known for ducks, trees and a selection of excellent retirement homes. This, I thought, must be the antithesis of my first motley sharehouse. This is how the grown-ups live. 

Needless to say, it was tricky to get flatmates to fill the tiny rooms my dull, suburban new home offered. I ended up living with two other women – one that I knew, vaguely, from work and another that I found on the internet, who was moving to Melbourne from Texas and wanted to secure her lodgings before she arrived.

My workmate was afraid that the Texan, Steph, would be awful, though she needn’t have worried. They became firm friends. But in an echo of my high school nightmares, their friendship was founded on a mutual hatred of me, to the extent that I would enter the house in the evening, say hello, and be ruthlessly ignored.

They made meals together, watched TV together and went out on the town together. They laughed together in their bedrooms and shared hair straighteners. They were living a version of the flatting dream (besties! All the time!) with the only caveat being my presence at the edges of their joy, demanding pesky things like rent and compassion. 

I’ve heard about the good flats, where everyone loves each other and cooks two nights a week; where a collection of like-minded people coexist in a striking blend of harmony and academic debate; where feminist theory is discussed over freshly dehydrated crostini and where almond milk is constantly flowing - but I’ve never quite found a home like that. 

 I don’t see who I am but who I would like to be – a baker, a stoner, an adventurous cat owner – and allow that person to choose my lodgings.

Perhaps it’s because having a dog has limited my housing options or because my fear of being without walls runs so deep that I generally take the first room offered. It might be that I’m a poorer judge of character than I thought or it might be that each time I see a new home I envision a new life. I don’t see who I am but who I would like to be – a baker, a stoner, an adventurous cat owner – and allow that person to choose my lodgings.

And so, I’ve lived in a number of mercilessly odd places. One was a loft-style room perched above a warehouse filled from floor to ceiling with broken furniture and polar fleece blankets. The four of us living there had large pieces of plywood instead of walls. The flatmate whose cubicle filled the living room was going through a heavy period of internet dating, and the rest of us would often have to huddle at the other end of the house to avoid the rhythmic groaning.

We were convinced we had a ghost, which turned out to be a series of stray cats who found their way into the house. But I envied those wily felines, who came and went as they pleased, because there was no fire exit and I knew that in an emergency we would be trapped within our grotty concrete inferno. The door was always locked, requiring a key for escape, and all that furniture was bound to go up one day.

We even once had the police come by to search for a dead body amid the detritus downstairs. It seemed the perfect hiding place. All they found were a colony of rats and, disturbingly, a few pairs of torn knickers.

When I finally left, I did a runner – all my flatmates had seen the light and departed, and considering the host of tenancy breaches in place I figured I would cut my losses and get out. I’ve heard the space is now a hip-hop collective, and significantly improved. I would feel jealous if the memory of it all didn’t cause me to shudder with fear.  

My last house was a real one, with a yard and two roomies far beyond their twenties. The house before it, in Auckland’s Mangere, was gutted by a fire I'd anticipated in days gone by. The blaze was born of a broken stovetop and, I suspect, distraction due to the copious marijuana use of the flatmate deep frying at the time. Regardless, the place had black mold in the bathroom and a lounge of torn white couches atop stained, damp rugs.

Though the fire hastened my departure, the time had come to move on, and in doing so I realised that I was, in fact, a little house-proud. I wanted to have my family around for dinner, to eat breakfast at the table and to sleep early under high ceilings, with a heater on in the winter.    

 I miss being offered a cup of tea and the sounds that make a house feel like a home. But for me, flatting was always an imperfect form of sharing a life.

I knew I was a grownup when I decided that my new flat simply had to have a dishwasher. When I was willing to pay a little more than I could afford (ie the full extent of my Studylink allowance) for indoor-outdoor flow. When the prevalence of cast iron skillets in my newfound kitchen made my heart flutter, and when I nodded at the arrangement of the lounge and muttered something about entertaining, cocktail hours and book clubs. 

I’ve recently moved into a version of my own place. While my brother’s in-laws live upstairs, I have a two-bedroom unit in the (light, beautiful) basement all to myself. I wanted to spend some time focusing on my goals in an environment I could control, but it’s a little lonely. I almost miss the clunk of my last flatmate’s heels on the wooden floors upon the stroke of midnight. I miss being offered a cup of tea and the sounds that make a house feel like a home. But for me, flatting was always an imperfect form of sharing a life.

I won’t miss passive aggressive notes stuck to sandwiches or house meetings in which “only the person holding the jandal gets to speak! Raise your hand when you would like a turn with the jandal!” I’m not proud of every place I’ve called home, nor do I revel in fights over skid marks or begging flatties for “less loud sex in the daytime, please. My grandmother was visiting and it was awkward.” But whether flatting is through necessity or choice, it seems that we find ways to belong together.    

If I ever flat again, I hope to encounter something less like a job interview and more like a good Tinder date. Less “how financially stable are you?” and more “will you share a blanket with me when we’re poor and it’s cold?” Not “do you have your own kitchen stuff” but “we collect the same china pattern!” Less occupying the same space, and more building a shared life. 

I’ll always remember my first flat as the place in which I started to be the person I would become. Where I learned to hold my own, to have expectations and to confront people when they were not met. Without flatting, I’m not sure I would be able to slot in with strangers so easily. I wouldn’t know what’s it’s like to be hungry and staring at an empty cupboard. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to be afraid of having nowhere to go, and I would have a lot less empathy for others.

Plus, I would have far fewer stories. Whatever the cost, and whether or not I could pay it on time, it was worth it. 

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