Joe Under the Stairs

Joe had grown tired of his housemates and tired of living under the stairs. After four awkward and uncomfortable years, he awoke one morning and realised that he’d had enough.

He’d grown tired of the dust that drifted down onto his bed when his housemates clomped back and forth above his head. Tired of them leaving the front door open. Of stumbling out in his underwear to close it. Of lying awake late at night, knowing that one of them would come home drunk and leave the light on.

And tired of the airless space he slept in.

The few times that he fumed and ranted he’d say over and again: living under the stairs isn’t nearly as romantic as it sounds. Or as quiet.

***

He’d moved into the house with his girlfriend. Though it wasn’t really a house and she wasn’t really his girlfriend.

It was a factory-showroom-warehouse-thing: an empty two-storey shell on a main road, stuck between a panel beater and a sweatshop. Tiny windowless rooms abutted rooms thirty feet wide and twenty feet tall. The walls were made of concrete, three feet thick, painted hospital green.

At night, the block it was on screamed empty, unloved and cold.

It was just the two of them at first. He took a showroom as a bedroom, and slept with a fake crystal chandelier high above his head.

She took a long, low-ceilinged room at the opposite end of the building, as far away from him as she could get.

***

Things didn’t work out. She went from not-really being his girlfriend to just not. They fought. A lot. More housemates moved in, to fill the empty rooms and the awkward spaces.

He eventually moved downstairs.

The only way in and out was through the lobby, the only room on the street. So he sealed off the underside of the stairs and hung second-hand bedspreads and bargain shop fabric from ceiling to floor. He tucked his bed in the nook he’d made, far from view.

Everything else he owned lay strewn about the lobby itself.

Where he slept was narrow and dark, with no windows or natural light. The first night, he crashed out so hard that the traffic fifty feet from his head didn’t wake him.

***

The morning of the day he decided he’d had enough was nothing special. He slept in. He had coffee and stared blankly out the lounge room window. He skipped breakfast, and cleaned the fetid mess his housemates had left in the kitchen instead. He played a little music and read a little.

He made a late lunch and stared out the window some more.

As dusk approached, he got on his bike and cycled to work.

He worked a usual night. The spitting oil in the frying pans he cooked with burnt his forearms. The endless tomatoes and onions he cut stained his hands.

He drank espresso after espresso and sweated and sweated.

When it was time to close he put a favourite album on the stereo and slowly cleaned the kitchen. When he finished, the street outside was quiet and dark.

He put the bare bones of a meal together, to reheat later. When he was home and he was clean and the house was still. He unchained his bike and rode away.

***

As he turned onto his block, he saw that his front door was open. People milled about, smoking on the street, sharing stories and cracking jokes and talking the talk.

Inside, people filled the lobby, drinking and flirting and dancing. Some lazed and sprawled out on furniture they’d dragged down the stairs.

He squeezed through them, using his bike to part the way. A few people said hello. Some nodded at him and smiled. Most just ignored him. He locked his bike to the banister and looked around again.

He saw someone snort beer out their nose as they tried to drink and talk at the same time.

The music throbbed. He hurried upstairs.

***

The lounge swelled and overflowed: the crowd within danced as one, in lock step with the DJ’s beat. The walls shook and the windows quivered in their frames.

Half-formed moans and stifled cries of joy could be heard escaping from the storerooms lining the hallway to the kitchen.

He found it a bombshell: a wreck and a ruin. Dirty glasses perched on every surface. Stained paper plates and stale pizza crusts and other miscellaneous debris covered the table. Grease and fat lay as grey scum over the water in the sink. A foul smell met him when he opened the fridge.

There wasn’t a housemate to be seen.

***

Joe went back downstairs. The music still throbbed. He jostled people aside as he rummaged through cupboards. He ignored the annoyed air of those around him, and avoided the dirty looks they shot him.

He pulled a dusty lilo and a sleeping bag bound with string from a trunk someone had spilled a drink on. He ducked under the stairs and returned with a pillow and a blanket.

He bundled everything together and walked out the front door. Looking past the crowd that filled the footpath, he set off.

The few times that he fumed and ranted he’d say over and again: sleeping in the park isn’t nearly as romantic as it sounds. But it is quiet.

(Originally published in Inscribe, January 2011)

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