This week, our cellar flooded. Or rather, we realised it had flooded. There’s been a faint musty smell at the back of our old house for a while now. In our main bathroom, you can see black water pooling below the floor drain, and I had figured this was the source of the smell. It didn’t occur to me to do anything about it, or even to think anything could be done.
It is, I think, the legacy of living in rental properties for your entire adult life: unless there’s an obvious problem that’s affecting your day-to-day life, you accept things as they are. Like the oven in one of my favourite rental properties, 96 Anderson Street Yarraville, which stopped properly closing about six months before the owner sold the house and we had to leave. The faulty door meant the roast dinners I liked to cook on Sundays took hours, even when I propped a chair against the oven door to keep it from falling open. But the owner was in no rush to fix it, and I was more interested in not moving than in speedy roast dinners.
When I got home from an 11-hour day on Monday night – after going through an edit with an author, page by page, for five hours straight – I collapsed on the couch, my limbs fizzing with exhaustion, and Luke said, ‘I’m sorry, but I need to show you something’. And he led me down the hallway to the opening of the cellar, a metre of water glinting black under the switched-on light over the stairs. Plastic plaid storage bags and grey-looking sheets floated in the murk: the clothes, shoes and bed linen we’ve been storing there. Some of it I wasn’t ready to throw out, some of it I was planning to reintegrate into my wardrobe, and some of it was just there.
Tuesday morning, at work, I told my colleague Poppy, a writer, the story.
‘You know, my life at home is really great – there’s nothing wrong with it, and Luke and I are great – but it can’t help but feel like a metaphor,’ I said. ‘You know: a smell rising from the bottom of the house, in a place where no one turns on the light, and being kind of aware of it but ignoring it, and then … disaster.’
Poppy laughed. ‘It’s not a metaphor,’ she said.
‘But do you know what I mean?’ I said. ‘As a writer? It just seems too apt.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Absolutely.’ And she seemed to really get it. ‘But it’s not a metaphor. Really.’
I knew she was right, of course.
‘So I should take the real-life evidence that nothing is festering, ignored, in my life as reality, rather than the water in my cellar that seems like it should be a metaphor?’ I said, and we both laughed.
“Yes,’ said Poppy.
But I felt better for having shared my illogical disquiet.
On Wednesday, the plumber came. The smell had been getting worse daily, and I wondered if it was psychological – after all, that black water had obviously been festering there for a while. The plumber stood in the water in his gumboots, while Luke climbed halfway down the damp stairs and I stood at the slate tiles at the top, beside the bins we’d wheeled in from the verandah. The plumber handed dank, stinking, dripping armfuls to Luke, and he handed them up the steps to me.
‘Oh!’ I wailed, recognising the flannelette pyjamas I’d been looking for this week. I now remembered that when I cleared out the spare bedroom – Felix’s room – just before Christmas, I put the winter clothes I found there in the cellar, intending to retrieve them when the weather turned. I put my favourite pyjamas – one matching plaid set, one pair of pants – aside on the tiles. I would turn them in the washing machine before I went to bed, but when I got up to use the bathroom at 3am and opened the door. of the machine, they still smelled of dirty water.
They were the only item of clothing I tried to save. I must have loved them best.
‘Ahhhh,’ I moaned, taking the knee-high, maroon suede, block-heeled Camper boots from a stinking plaid plastic bag. They cost $400, though I bought them at 30% off, using my first ever public lending rights payment from my memoir. Two weeks ago, I bought a lavishly fake-fur collared vest lined with sheepskin from the vintage market with my sisters, planning to team it with these boots. I wore those boots to the ceremony for the one literary award my book was shortlisted for. I’m wearing them in my favourite photograph of me and my mother, taken back at the hotel afterwards. I’m holding my shortlisting plaque.
‘No, no, no!’ I said, as Luke held up a dripping plastic bag through which I recognised the quilted floral bedspread I bought myself after my ex-husband left. Felix, who was then thirteen, told me it made my bed look like a nun’s, and at least one good friend made a politely worded comment to the same effect. It’s pretty and ultra feminine and it definitely looks like it belongs on a bed owned by a single woman. But that bedspread that only I really liked made my first solo bedroom feel like it belonged to me: like I had chosen it.
‘We have contents insurance,’ Luke reminded me, as I looked sadly at the forest-green houndstooth blazer I’ve only worn once or twice, but have owned for over a decade. I like the idea of how I look wearing it more than the reality, but haven’t been able to bring myself to throw it out, over several house-moving purges.
I’ve never had contents insurance before. Luke’s dad pays for it. Luke is matter-of-fact about this, though it feels luxurious to me.
‘These are all vintage clothes and fashion labels, right?’ the plumber called, from amid the black water, debris bobbing around his gumboots. ‘The insurer will pay you replacement value on all of these. They’re all valuable, right?’
There’s the maroon leather jacket I bought at a vintage market stall in Sydney, that time Mel and I went to see Morrissey at the Sydney Opera House for the Vivid Festival – before the extent of his right-wing nastiness was known. (Or, before we all forced ourselves to see it.) I wore that jacket everywhere for months. I was wearing it in my longest-standing Tinder profile picture, with patterned Gorman pants.
The fake-leather jacket with the red-and-black plaid panels at the front, which I wore to the first Imprints Christmas party, and on to a punk gig (Amyl and the Sniffers) with Luke afterwards, during my first six months living back here in Adelaide.
Both jackets have part-dissolved in the water.
Then there’s the lace-edged black dress I bought at Red Cross on Rundle Street on a Christmas visit to my family, then wore to the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards the day after my job as program manager for Melbourne Writers Festival was announced. Everyone working for the Wheeler Centre (as I was then) had to wear black to the event so we could be ushers, spaced from the Government House street entrance to the white tent the ceremony was staged under, at the back of the gardens. I remember standing in the sun, in front of a trestle table lined with name tags, my ankles aching in my towering wedge sandals. Almost everyone who paused to take a name tag from me congratulated me on the new job, until I felt like I was on a receiving line at a wedding. My marriage had ended almost exactly a year earlier, and I was still sad in a way that shrivelled my appetite, and my body. It was a sadness that I woke with every day and fell asleep with every night. But on this afternoon, it seemed I had made it. And maybe now, work would be enough. It would cure me, sustain me.
The following year, I wore that dress to New Year’s Eve at my dear friend Rochelle’s house. That night, we ate barbecue under a newly planted rose trellis and danced on the back lawn past midnight, our shoes kicked off. My dearest friends and I were photographed together. Mel came home with me to my Footscray flat and we sat on the couch and laughed hysterically at stupid things until Felix and his best friend came home from their party.
‘Oh my god, they’re drunk!’ his friend said, and we laughed hysterically again, as they disappeared into Felix’s bedroom.
The bronze Reebok sneakers I bought while I was working at Melbourne Writers Festival, where my colleague George – white-blonde, impeccably professional and impossibly cool – wore sneakers with designer clothes every day and influenced me to buy my own sneakers in white, black – and bronze – to go with my every outfit.
I walked from the city home to Footscray a couple of a week (when I wasn’t working past dark), Spotify blaring through my headphones: through North Melbourne and Kensington, and over the Maribyrnong to Footscray, following the river until I reached my apartment building. On the night when my festival contract was renewed and I went out drinking with George and my boss, the night I passed out into a restaurant window in Chinatown (I still have the scar), where we were lining up for dumplings in an attempt to sober me up – I was wearing those sneakers on that night. The next day, my friend Maria and I were scheduled to attend a pop-up literary festival, where Cheryl Strayed was one of the speakers. She talked about being ‘wild’, and Maria turned to me – to the violet lump on my forehead, a cut through it – and said, ‘She’s talking about you, my friend.’ And I laughed, not because I thought I was funny, but because I thought Maria was. I was ashamed, but Maria said she liked that about me – that I was utterly myself. I was fearless, she said. I wasn’t – I had slammed back endless free spirits that night because I was afraid that I was still so sad – but I liked that she thought that.
At Readings Doncaster, where I worked after I burned myself out at Melbourne Writers Festival, I wore those sneakers proudly to work nearly every day. Zipping back and forth on the vast shop floor; racing up and down ladders to retrieve or shelve books; and to the food court, ten minutes away, and back (inhaling food at speed in between), during half-hour lunch breaks. I was there because I had failed to make it after all. The people at Readings were so kind, the work so steady and gently consuming, that I let go of being important and embraced being useful. There, I began to be happy again.
I walked kilometres along the Maribyrnong River in those sneakers, too. From my Footscray apartment to Highpoint Shopping Centre and back; sometimes going further, into Ascot Vale and Moonee Ponds – walking until I calculated I could go no further, and it was time to turn back. Sometimes, I walked in the opposite direction, to Newport, where I had lived with my ex-husband, and caught the train to the nearby beach, where I would walk some more.
Walking in those sneakers, my ears plugged with music or podcasts, kept me sane, even when I wasn’t.
I might miss those sneakers almost as much as I’ll miss the pyjamas – even though I haven’t worn them in over a year.
The lurid striped and flowered jumpsuit I bought at Vinnie’s in Semaphore during the summer holiday when I met Luke. I wore that jumpsuit to my 42nd birthday celebration on the beach, where I told my cousin Ali that I’d been talking to a guy on Tinder who I really liked, though he lived in Adelaide, so it would obviously never amount to anything. Four days later, Luke and I met for a drink at the Exeter and we’ve barely gone a day without talking since.
That jumpsuit, and the olive-green dress with the gold-clasped waist (now soaking in the bin), were among the opshop finds that summer that hooked me on buying nearly all my clothes that way. I stopped wearing my habitual jeans and patterned Gorman pants and t-shirts, and started to wear mostly dresses.
Luke likes them. And it brings me back to when I was young, before I had Felix, when I bought cheap opshop clothes most weekends, in order to have something new to wear out, and delighted in vintage dresses and Doc Marten boots (there was a pair of them in the cellar water, too). My ex-husband never liked the dresses I bought, so I stopped wearing them long ago – not deliberately, but as an instinctive defence against criticism. It’s not his fault that he didn’t like what I did – that I didn’t suit him. It’s just a sign, looking back, that we weren’t well matched.
To my first date with Luke, I wore a gauzy red-and-white polka dot skirt I’d bought at a vintage shop in Sempahore, with a black shirt tied at the waist. To be honest, I’d been proofreading a manuscript all day and I had no time to change before meeting him. I didn’t think it was a date outfit – it felt more like an outfit for me – but then again, he was also someone who lived in a different city to me, so it probably didn’t matter much. This wasn’t going to be a thing. Luke was sitting at the bar, drinking the same brand of apple cider that’s my go-to drink, wearing a short-sleeved black-and-red plaid shirt with black jeans. We matched.
Luke says I need to go through the three wheeled bins stuffed with my wet clothes and shoes (and handbags – oh, the handbags!) and estimate the value of what I’ve lost. And then the insurers will either come and inspect it, or accept my claim and pay me out.
He’s lost things, too – an old framed racing-car photo now faded beyond recognition and glass-splintered, and a Marilyn Monroe canvas from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that hung in his kitchen before I moved my stuff into the house.
And Barry Hall’s Party Organ, a novelty record he won in a spot-trivia contest on our third, three-day-long date (I visited him from Melbourne), at a Fringe event called Vinyl Club.
We listened to it once, as a joke, but it’s among the saddest losses.