I was introduced to papier-mache when I was seven. Everyone in my class made an “owl”, a generous interpretation of an inflated balloon covered in white paste and painted brown. In hindsight someone should have asked the teacher if she was OK, because this activity was neither enjoyable nor produced anything resembling an owl.
I was thinking of this air-filled atrocity recently when I was making my bed, and a book that had been nestled between blankets softly struck the wall. What resulted was a huge overreaction by the wall (in my opinion): a hole roughly the size of an avocado stone appeared, and dusty white fragments spilled out silently. A gust of cool air emerged from the crevice. Wow, dramatic much? It wasn’t even a hardcover.
Like many old houses, mine often feels flimsy, ready to crumble at any moment. Previous attempts at hole-patching from tenants gone by are found throughout as large bulging clouds, optimistic layer upon optimistic layer. The house slopes so profoundly we use multiple door stoppers to prop up my furniture. I tip-toe around the kitchen as one of the wobbly beams cracks so loudly I fear that one confident stride will plunge me deep underground, where I’ll be forced to live as a mole person. And I hate worms!
Winter has hit hard. Working from home means I don’t have access to fancy comforts like heating or insulation. I shuffle from room to room draped in a blanket, softly murmuring to myself, performing a horrible unauthorised version of Still Alice. My desk chair is stored carefully to prevent it from rolling to the other side of the room and triggering shrieks of “POLTERGEIST!” (from me).
Please know that I am neither exaggerating nor complaining. I jokingly call my room a rat cave because all the wall space is cracked, and there are actual rodents scurrying inside the walls. But it’s my rat cave. I’m lucky to have a roof over my head, albeit a leaky one, and absolutely not the only one living in less-than-ideal conditions.
When sharing these tidbits with friends, I’m met with nods of understanding and shared lived experience. “My clothes are always damp too!” exclaims one friend. “My last place had a HUGE rat,” says another. “A gust of wind once shattered the kitchen window,” shares a colleague, and I’m reminded that my own bedroom windows are decorated with industrial tape. We all see our breath indoors on cold days.
It’s a world away from where I thought I’d be in my 30s, stuffing steel wool into fist-sized holes so mice don’t come marching into my bedroom from the backyard I can visibly see through the opening. (As an aside, I’m not entirely sure the mouse plague hasn’t already hit Melbourne, it’s just entirely localised in the walls of my house.)
But this is the situation so many of us are in. The housing market is less accessible than a good landlord (just kidding, if you’re reading this [redacted]!). The myth of working hard resulting in success and security was debunked long ago. Older women are becoming homeless in record numbers. We are all exhausted.
When I first moved into this share house, I’d overcompensate my shame to justify it to others: it’s so cheap! My health conditions are expensive! The rooms are pretty big at least! It’s actually good exposure therapy for my fear of spiders! Ha! Ha!
I no longer feel shame, nor should anyone who is in similar circumstances. Personal failings have not caused this, systemic inequality has. We can advocate for tenants’ rights and campaign against wealth disparity and the ongoing destruction of superannuation.
In the meantime, buckets are propped under leaks and door-stoppers wedged under shelves. And hey, maybe I’ll get better at papier-mache.