Overheard on the Swanston Street tram, passing the corner of Queensberry Street on the way to Melbourne Uni: “I’ve had enough of this winter. We’ve been wearing ski jackets inside to stay warm. Ski jackets!” He was a student type, in his very early twenties, sporting fashionably skinny jeans, artfully scruffy haircut and Converse sneakers, drawling his woes into his mobile phone with a complete lack of self-consciousness. “We’ve been wearing scarves around the house. That’s not right.” Pause. “But I guess that’s what you pay for character. Character! Huh.” A wry, defeated laugh. “I fucking hate character. When you move down here, let’s get a two bedroom place. I mean, I like share houses and all, but ... it’s time to move up in the world.”
I generally hate it when people broadcast their lives to train- or tram-loads of trapped fellow passengers, but when they’re as entertaining as this guy was, I kind of like it. I was on a Saturday morning run to work, having briefly stopped at the State Library cafe for a rushed meeting first. I was armed with a laptop backpack, a shoulder bag stuffed with books I should be reading, and the Saturday newspapers. At the end of a long work week, I was snatching a few hours while my son was being dressed by his stepfather, then dropped at a birthday party, to flee to the office and finish a job.
Glancing surreptitiously at ski-jacket-guy as he talked, images of his student life flashed through my brain – a crumbling Victorian two-storey terrace in North Carlton with couches on the balcony and rust in the bathtub. Literally surrounded by the baggage of my thirty-something life, I looked at him and was hit by two conflicting waves: envy and relief.
Almost exactly ten years ago, I lived in a two-storey share house on Elgin Street, Carlton. There was no rust in the bathtub, though the taps didn’t work. And while there was no couch on the balcony, there was a tapestry-covered armchair on the roof.
I had recently moved from Adelaide and shared with a houseful of backpackers who’d followed me from the hostel that had been my home for my first two weeks in Melbourne. Two English boys shared a bedroom, sleeping on mattresses on the floor and living out of their enormous rucksacks. Another English boy, who had a one-year job contract and was sharing the lease with me, had somehow snaffled the double bedroom with a balcony overlooking the Housing Commission flats. Oh, and there was a fourth, interchangeable English-backpacker-boy who slept on the sofa bed downstairs. Every time one moved on, a new one from the hostel would replace him. I had a boxy room with chipboard walls that barely contained my double bed, wardrobe and Apple Mac (which sat on a kitchen chair at the foot of my bed).
There was one really cool thing about my bedroom, though. If you lost your keys and had to break in (which I often did), the only way of letting yourself into the house was to scale the corrugated iron fence into our courtyard from the back alley, heave yourself up onto the water heater, make the calculated jump-and-wriggle onto the roof, and climb through my bedroom window. This was how I discovered the armchair on the roof, and occasionally I’d climb out of my window to sit in it and smoke a cigarette, looking over the rooftops of Carlton towards the city towers in the near distance.
I had a melodramatic crush on one of my flatmates, who’d had a fleeting crush on me until we slept together (back in the hostel, days after we met), but he'd then explained to me that he couldn’t have a girlfriend because he was “on holidays, you know”. Then he fell for a girl from the Housing Commission flats, who we met during Happy Hour at the Tankerville. But she was seduced by the charms of one of our other flatmates – the one who shared his bedroom. Then, after I fell into a relationship, my flatmate started speaking of me in wistful tones when I wasn’t around (bless those chipboard walls – I could hear them talking in the kitchen when I was in bed) and offering to paint my nails while we watched television.
Brunswick Street was a block away in one direction; Lygon Street was a block away in the other. I would walk to work in North Melbourne past Readings and once a week, on the way home, I would allow myself to buy a book from my paltry junior-publishing-person salary and thrill to any titbits of conversation with the bookseller who handed me my paper bag. It was the mid-90s. Grunge literature was impossibly hip, and living in my own grungy share house within walking distance of the Punter’s Club, wearing black and buying The Virgin Suicides at Readings, was my version of a storybook life. (Hey, I’d come from Adelaide.)
Then the backpacker boys moved off, one by one, and I ended up with the one who shared my lease; the one I liked least, to tell the truth. We advertised in the Readings window for a replacement when we no longer knew anyone at the hostel, and the crop-haired girl who answered the ad sat in the courtyard with us for half an hour, making conversation and drinking beer. She seemed nice enough. While I was in Adelaide for a week, she took my one good piece of furniture (my bookshelf) from the lounge room and moved it into her bedroom, moving my books onto hers instead. She also replaced the light bulb in our front room with a red one, meaning that from the Elgin Street footpath, our house resembled a brothel, and from the couch, it was impossible to read through the angry red haze. She once explained to me with the solemnity of a Nobel candidate that it’s really, really hard to get a job at Dangerfield because “it takes a lot of skill to assemble those outfits”.
Soon, it was time to move up in the world. I moved out with my boyfriend, into a two-bedroom flat. (It took a month and multiple threats to get my fridge back from Dangerfield Girl.) A year later, I had a child.
And now, I’m living a pretty sensible life nowhere near Carlton. I would love to walk down the road to Readings and Brunswick Street; to have nothing to do on a Saturday than plan my night at the pub. These days, catch-ups with friends are planned in a series of emails or texts, days (sometimes weeks) in advance. Back then, they were as inevitable and regular – and necessary – as brushing your teeth, and required as little thought or planning.
But ... I also have work that I find absorbing, a long-term relationship that requires no melodrama (and no games!) and a child who amuses and delights (and yes, often annoys) me every day. I am very attached to all the baggage symbolised by my busy Saturday and litter of bags and books – and I’ve worked hard to amass it.
So. Envy and relief.
I wish ski-jacket-guy the best of luck with his move up in the world. Although I feel nostalgic for the mess and excitement of my early twenties, when the simplest things were new and special, I wouldn’t give up what I have for it. And the mere thought of doing it all again is exhausting.
I’m typing this on my verandah, at my laptop, my bare feet and presence on the wrong side of my study window testament to the first burst of summer. Children from the school a few doors down from me straggle past as I type; daisy chains of fluorescent blue and navy uniforms, sunhats on heads. Eventually, the small boy glimpsed through the screen of trees and bushes is my own.
“Hello!” I call and watch as he spins wildly, looking for me on the footpath.
“I’m here! On the verandah!”
“Oh!” He laughs and runs to meet me, backpack trailing at his feet and falling at the front steps as he moves to peer at my laptop screen and hug me hello. “Look at you, outside! Ha! Are you enjoying the weather, Mum?”
“I am. I thought we could go for an ice cream. What do you think?”
“Yes!” he squeals and throws his arms around me again, squeezing me tight this time. He lets go and throws his arms open, embracing the afternoon. “You are the best Mum in the world! Ice cream!”
Simple things. New and special.