I pull the fitted sheet tight, smoothing out the wrinkles from the restless night before. If there’s a flat sheet I draw that across, knowing it will still be tucked firm on one side but loose on this side, the one that I’ve slumped out of. I grab the edge of the quilt and lay it flat. I smooth the corners, tuck the top sheet into the bottom left hand corner, and fold the top corner over the quilt. Or quilts. They are all different beds, but I still make them the same way.
Or sometimes I’m only getting up because I have to. Water to drink, heat packs to warm, snacks to eat so I can take more drugs. I flop the corner of the bedding over to one side, slide my legs out, and muster every bit of strength to bring myself up to standing.
Or I use the steps to come down, knowing the paper under me will be scrunched and thrown out once I’m out the door.
Or I come back from the bathroom and a nurse has kindly straightened the bed for me.
I have slept in a lot of beds this year. Some by choice, some not.
When I go to see The Basement Tapes I am living on top of a hill. Clean sheets are promised, as always, but these are brand new. Made of jersey cotton, like sleeping in an old soft t-shirt.
At 8pm each night for two weeks the sound of fireworks nearby echo from one side of the house to the other. On the tram to North Melbourne parents have hooked collected plastic bags on to the handles of prams. The smaller children are curled up asleep, the older ones excitedly discussing the night. The parents all look exhausted.
I walk into The Warehouse at North Melbourne Town Hall and chairs are laid out in a V-shape around what could be a shed, a spare room, a basement. Unused furniture, open boxes, rugs rolled and slouched against a wall. It doesn’t matter where or how you live, the scene is universal.
There’s a mess and Stella doesn’t know where to begin, or where to pick up from where she left off, or when to stop. So she dances.
Kanye West’s Fade echoes through The Warehouse. ‘I feel it, fade away’. Stella replicates the dance from the song’s video. It’s raw, it’s sexual. For most of the video the dancer is sweaty and alone, in an empty gym. Stella is not sure what to do with all her energy, here, alone, so she energetically and cathartically throws herself around the staged basement. ‘When no one ain’t around (I feel it’s fadin’)’.
Stella doesn’t acknowledge the audience, just as Kanye’s dancer doesn’t acknowledge the camera. ‘Ain’t nobody watchin’ (I feel it’s fadin’)’.
And then the music stops.
My mum has cleaned out homes when others have left. Some family, some friends. Sometimes when I’m at her house I open a cupboard, filled to the brim, and sigh. When the time comes there’s going to be a lot of stuff. It’s so often women doing this work. I know it will be me.
Stella is cleaning out her Grandma’s basement. The funeral has been and gone, as has the rest of the family. She leaves long voicemails for her mum, who never answers the phone. She picks up a coat, tries it on, throws it in a box of stuff to keep. She opens drawers, closes them.
Among the ‘mountainous expanse of [her] Grandma’s stuff’ Stella finds a cassette player. She digs around and finds a suitcase full of tapes. One plays Moon River, her grandmother’s favourite. She loved the old classics. But Stella is looking for something else, something to tell her more about who her grandmother really was.
A recorded confession, in her grandmother’s voice. Stella is at first relieved, soon intrigued, later spooked. The tingle up the spine begins to ripple from Stella to the audience. This is no longer a nostalgic look at family; this is a reminder that families keep secrets. The dark corners of the basement have lights focused on them and their mess is revealed.
This place of safety, the reminiscence of childhood, has become scary, airless. The tape begins to act in unexpected ways, the audience moves from cynical to captivated. Stella hides in a corner, trying to feel safe in what should be a place of comfort. There’s an eerie finale. The lights come up.
The things we leave behind tell others who we are. They become our legacy. The camel coat with the fur collar looks just as at home in a grandmother’s basement as it would in a Kanye West video. Stella is somewhere in the middle of the two.
I take the tram back up the hill. I microwave a heat pack, I take my meds. I pull over the covers, like a big soft t-shirt.
I was looking for comfort in other people’s beds because I could no longer be in my own. All those hours spent with my knees close to my chest, hugging a heat pack. All those hours spent pressing snooze, wishing I didn’t have to go to work. All those hours spent wondering when the pain would end, wondering if I was losing my mind.
Friends offered me their beds so I didn’t have to pay rent for a while. The hospital bills, the hours and days of work missed, all the extra costs adding pressure. My tiny studio apartment, once a little corner of the city just for me, now felt claustrophobic. It was a sanctuary when I could escape it, but when I slowed as the pain increased it became another world closing in.
I took my suitcase up and down stairs, in and out of Ubers, in and out of the vacant homes of my friends away on holiday. Doing what healthy people do, escaping the bleak Melbourne winter for sunny breaks. In every bed I slept with my heat pack wrapped around my middle, and my stuffed animal held close. A young professional woman, a thirty-five-year-old adult clutching to comfort and the idea of home without one, hoping these things would anchor me as I felt my old self drift away.
It’s my second night back in my hometown when I see F*#king Adelaide. I’m sleeping in my childhood bed at my mother’s house. I’m so relieved to be here.
Eli is summoned home, as is his sister, Kate, her partner and their daughter. Kitty hasn’t yet left. (We all leave eventually). Maude is selling the family home, so together as a family they’re clearing out the house; a big stone cottage, like so many in the old suburbs of Adelaide.
Kitty has hidden a box of Geoff’s old things. Eli needs a change of clothes, having arrived without a suitcase or luggage of any kind. These are the only men’s things Kitty has. Somehow these things weren’t burned when Geoff finally left. But he never really left. Maude made sure he left the kids, though. Maude made sure the kids were safe, even if she wasn’t.
Adelaide is small—comforting for some, claustrophobic for others, often a conflicting mix of both. The wide streets that we rode and skated down as kids, the open space that let us be kids, the big clear skies that twinkled at night.
As an adult we crave it, yearn to go back, but often when we do it’s in times of distress. Christmases where extended families spurt problematic sermons, question our choices, stare skeptically at our foreign east-coast selves. Funerals where we mourn people we loved as well as the memories we clung to of home. Or to clean out the house being left behind, leaving us without the roots we rely upon.
The first time I left home, at nineteen, I took my heavy unwieldy suitcase up and down steep sets of stairs in youth hostels with little to no airflow. I needed an adventure, I needed some space. But I felt weighed down, by the suitcase full of impractical clothes, by the immediate sources of solace I found on my travels.
There’s a refrain that runs through F*#king Adelaide: ‘You can just tell, you can just tell, that I’ll never make it.’ I worry that if I come home people will judge me for not making it in “the big smoke”. But when I start to talk about coming home, about needing to come home, friends on both sides of the border understand. So I use this time in other people’s houses to see out Melbourne, to go to appointments, to organise my transfer at work, to say ‘this is not goodbye, but see you soon’.
In other people’s houses there is never a good place to put my suitcase. Wardrobes are full, the space underneath beds too low, corners populated with plants, chairs, everyday debris. So it sits awkwardly in every house. Open on the floor if I’m only there for a week or so, unpacked and pushed out the way if I’m hanging around for awhile.
It feels good to know I can condense my belongings down to this. My body and brain feel heavy with illness, it’s nice to counter that with the weightlessness of few possessions. The tracksuit pants that carry the hair of pets fed, a dog from one house, a cat from another. The oversized jumper worn in so much this winter, a comfort in May that begins to feel like a burden in September.
When I see Rabbits, I’ve been home in Adelaide for a week. I feel more comfortable in my surroundings, but it doesn’t yet feel like I’m here for good. It feels like I’m here for a few weeks, like I’ve done many times before. It feels like I’ll leave, back to another bed that’s not my own.
We drive west of town, my friend and I, past the river where my brother and I stood to watch the Christmas lights as kids, past the Ice Arena that we only ever call by its old name in that way Adelaideans do. In the crowded foyer I see some familiar faces. Soon we’re taken through a door and into a cavernous warehouse. There are couches and we’re offered tea. We are welcomed into a temporary home, of sorts.
The unnamed woman on stage (played by Emily Steel, also the writer of the work) is an introduced species, like rabbits. We probably don’t need any more English people in this country, but they can’t do any harm, can they? They’re familiar, they remind us of where (some of us) are from. But what about . . .
Having arrived with just suitcases, a young couple in love start to collect furniture, possessions to fill a new home in a new place. Soon there is a child, too. But just because the home is filled, doesn’t mean it is settling.
Rabbits asks questions of migration and of home. Transplanted across the world, to somewhere that shouldn’t be that different, how to do you find a home for yourself? Sitting on a comfortable sofa, drinking tea and watching a play, how do you reconcile the cavernous warehouse around you?
The empty expanses of Plant 1, a former factory for local electrical company Clipsal, are equally stark and threatening. As the story unfolds the world closes in, the mind wanders to the worst of people, that English politeness fades to anger. How are we supposed to live together? How do we live like this?
‘A unit’ she says, ‘not a flat, a unit. Sounds like a cell.’ The concrete poles that uniformly hold up the empty warehouse could easily be used to divide the space into prison blocks. Those bold straight lines. As the play continues, the set draws closer to the lounge room the audience sits in. The props move closer, the light more focused. All that space that Australia promises new arrivals quickly becomes a prison. If the ‘good kind of migrants’ lose their minds, what is happening to the others?
Was I a good new arrival in Melbourne? I was at first. I was excited for the new start, the anonymity of escaping a city that behaves like a town, the new opportunities. But somewhere things started to change: the gloom of the weather and all that concrete, the distance from my family feeling a lot more than an hour’s flight away, the filthy beaches so difficult to get to and the grind of living somewhere so expensive.
The sheets seem more slippery, the bed more difficult to make. Or maybe I’m just not sleeping well. I wake up tired, but I’ve been tired since March when the pain first set in. The extra blanket comes on and off; I can’t decide which side is more comfortable to sleep on when I’m so aware of my body.
I feel unsettled, not sure where I belong. I’m pulled home for security, for family, to be grounded. I don’t miss the big city, but I miss my friends. Those who generously let me into their homes, who brought over food when I couldn’t cook, who drove me to appointments, who messaged me regularly to let me vent my frustrations.
So I walk a lot. I walk between the train station and my mother’s house, between the station in town to my work and my studio, to the supermarket and cafes and cinemas and pubs and theatres and anywhere else that will help me feel grounded back in this town.
Whenever I can, I walk along the ocean. On cooler days I take the footpath in my trainers, earphones in to drown out the conversations of the couples taking an evening constitutional, but allowing myself to smile and relax around those walking their dogs. On warmer days I take off my shoes and let the sand and water cool my feet, I focus on the sound of the waves.
When the house is sold or the ghosts exposed, where do we find home then? In the memories of people, perhaps, but what if those memories aren’t reliable, or are a reminder of trauma, not joy?
We find comfort in the coat that still smells like those gone, of the songs that they loved. We find comfort in shared experience, knowing that others understand our pain and our feelings towards a place. We find comfort in small rituals, of making tea—proper tea, in a pot—and by making the bed. We find comfort in letting others in; letting people into our homes, and by accepting their invitations.
Soon I will have my own place again. It won’t be mine forever, but it’s an anchor for now. A fresh start away from ghosts, away from the memories of pain. Close to the beach, close to my family.
I’m buying new sheets, I’m making my own bed.
Kylie Maslen is a writer from Adelaide. Her writing is focussed on sense of place and feminism, covering topics including cultural criticism, women’s health, and her love of Australian Rules football. kyliemaslen.com