Head Swollen

Icy air cruelly brought me into wakefulness. My eyes ached. The covers lay across my face, smothering me. My brain felt like it could push out of my ears at any moment. I rubbed my face, trying to squeeze out some of the pressure that had built inside my skull overnight, but it had little effect. It was always like this on cold mornings. My bed soaked up all of the ice and mildew from this crypt of a room, marinating the sheets overnight until I awoke as a cold, aching migraineur. 

It had been three months since I had moved in. My comfortable small-town life that I had so desperately yearned to get away from stood in stark contrast to the life I lived now. It had taken months to get accepted into university and now that I was finally here, life back home seemed so far away. I finally had the opportunity to form an identity outside of home. Stressful though it felt to be living alone, it also felt freeing. 

My work at the bottle shop was a blissful escape from time spent at home. All I had to do was serve drunk old men and peacefully stack bottles until closing time. It was soothing. In quiet moments, I could feel the loneliness enforced by the house weighing down on me. Days passed with little movement on my behalf, I just sat back and let them push me along.

Slightly nauseated, I tentatively stuck my legs over the side of the bed, met at once by a cool draft blowing from under by door. ‘Refreshing’ was how my sibling had described the Hobart climate with a laugh. Shucking on my crappy slippers, I shuffled to over to the cupboard-cum-ensuite (what a luxury!) and let out a curse as the showerhead slipped down, mid-shower, to bash the crown of my head. 

I had known the house was cheap (there was no way the rent could be so low without something wrong with it), but I hadn’t thought it possible that a landlord would advertise a place that was unliveable. Wouldn’t your conscience weigh heavy on you, knowing you were taking money from people to live in your hole of a house? I had considered going to the Tenant’s Union, but the thought of making that phone call seemed juvenile and unfair. Perhaps that was due to my inexperience with such situations. Although the house was a tip, my landlady Deborah wasn’t that bad. She referred to everyone that lived at the house as ‘The Family’, so that surely had to mean she felt some endearment towards us. It was hard to tell. I could hardly afford to move to a new place, so I kept my mouth shut, hoping to keep the waters calm until the end of my lease in a year’s time. 

Out in the hallway, I could hear the characteristic sounds of Linda raiding the kitchen while I was in the shower. She was nice enough, I suppose, even though I suspected she had been stealing my rice. I was so contact starved, that even momentary eye-contact with Linda before she slammed her bedroom door shut was enough to briefly pull me out of my own head. 

When Deborah had responded to my ad looking for a place to live, she had assured me that it was a neat, welcoming house, sharing with one young student like myself. Looking at the email she had sent me of the impressive Victorian exterior of the house, I had been inclined to believe her. Everything had seemed legitimate over email. 

Of course, as soon as I had stepped foot on the property, single suitcase in tow, it swiftly became clear that things were not as described. It was an old house, cheaply subdivided into multiple flats. Two overcrowded apartment blocks flanked either side, ensuring that the south-facing front of the house never saw the light of day. My room was the front room, large bay windows that had looked lovely in the photos turned out to have cracked seals letting in the slightest gust of cool, Hobart sea-air. The place was barely weatherproof. 

That day, Linda had shuffled past me once to grunt a brief greeting. From then, I only saw her every other week. The room had been filled with the previous tenant’s filthy, unwanted belongings: stained bedsheets, a mouldy plastic knife in the bedside table, and a pile of plastic bags and cardboard boxes piled on the roof of the haphazard ensuite that were impossible to reach. Most repulsive of all were the curtains. I’m sure in a past life the back of them would have been a soft cream colour. But no more. Blackened as if held over a fire, they were coated with a thick black mould that had seeped into the fibres. Despite Deborah’s insistence, it was nigh impossible to clean, save for burning the place down. 

***

I came home early from work, the migraine that had begun that morning had flourished under the harsh white lights of the bottle shop. Steve was disgruntled at my leaving as usual, but I could hardly tell him that the house I was living in was giving me these migraines. I really tried to power through them. But more often than not the headache or the nausea got the better of me. I was walking a fine line; I could only hope that my dedicated work ethic would force him to continue putting me on the roster. 

Jiggling the key in the deadbolt to my room, the door gave way reluctantly.

There, standing by my bed was Deborah. She was dressed in a frighteningly professional manner—feet bedecked in the shiniest black pumps I had ever seen, her suit perfectly pressed. Beside her, two young people stood, pointing out the windows at the view of the harbour below. I could hardly believe it. Had Linda overheard me complaining to Mum over the phone and reported it to Deborah? I was certain I had not been late on any payments or otherwise done anything to call for an unannounced inspection. Had I? I could barely hold myself upright with the migraine circling my head. 

The nausea suddenly intensified at the prospect of finding a new place. Without a word, I rushed into the ensuite and began to throw up noisily.

My dramatic entrance forced Deborah to quickly wrap up the inspection. As I shakily tried to clean myself up, I heard snatches of their conversation as the three of them walked out the door. 
‘…very sorry…if you have any questions…yes…get your application in by...thank you…sorry.’ 

I heard a set of hollow footsteps make their way to the door of the ensuite. 

‘I didn’t realise you would be home; I will make sure you are not home next time.’ Her tone was flat.

I gaped at her. I was struggling to process what she had said, but I was fairly sure that had not been an apology for entering my room without permission. My eyes ached. 

After a moment of silence, Deborah continued: ‘I have decided to terminate your lease so I can renovate your room. The technician is booked for the Monday after next, you have until then to vacate the room. If you have any questions let me know, but otherwise, please leave your key with Linda when you move out.’ She smiled pleasantly. 

My legs buckled beneath me, and I sank to the floor. A cool gust of air whipped past my cheek. My head throbbed. 

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