“I bear with my loneliness now, in order to avoid greater loneliness in the years ahead. You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves.”
-Natsume Sōseki, in Kokoro, 1914
I live in a room in a house at the bottom of a cul-de-sac in an inner suburb of Brisbane. At the beginning of last year I moved here to study medicine, and since then I've spent most of my time either at the university, at the hospital, or in this room. It is a small, square bedroom, just big enough for my bed, desk, and bookshelf, which is about all I need. The house is a small brick bungalow, built in the mid-70s, or so I presume — the oven is stamped with the year 1974, and it looks roughly as old as everything else in the house, sitting broken and charred in the kitchen wall. The torn and dusty curtains, broken tiles, cracked bathroom mirror, mouldy shower, water-stained ceiling, collapsing pergola, and overgrown garden are all evidence that this has not been a family home for many years. The landlord lives overseas, and the rental agency is only heard from when the tenants change. Occasionally my sister stops by for a cup of tea after we've been out for dinner, and she always looks around us with cautious and somewhat pitying eyes. The rest of our street, and the suburb in which it sits, is full of two-storey houses with well-kept lawns and quasi-luxury sedans in the driveways. I tell people I live in the worst house in a nice neighbourhood, with decent housemates — those housemates are Eddie, Anna, and Nathan.
After a day's classes, I try to stay in the library until I can't stand it any more. Life is study, and study excludes life, as my anatomy tutor once said. After getting off the bus I take a long walk through a leafy park and along the suburban streets to reach our house, and when I get there it is usually quite dark. On most days, the house is darker than the street outside, since everyone is sitting in their own room, with their doors closed. I take my shoes off in the front hallway. Eddie's work boots sit askew next to Anna's neatly aligned running shoes and strappy heels, and I place my brown leather shoes at the end of the row. For the first few months I would feel a kind of gentle elation each time I saw a young woman's shoes sitting next to mine, and I would briefly imagine that they belonged to my girlfriend or wife, who lived here with me. Now they don't make me feel anything in particular. Nathan must keep his shoes in his room — I've never seen them.
Eddie is a small, stocky man in his thirties, who works a nonspecific manual job for one of the phone companies. His room is in the far corner of the house, near the shared bathroom. He is a talkative guy when the mood strikes him, and every so often we will happen to meet in the kitchen, and have a conversation. He often mixes up the order of his words and uses odd phrases, which might be a remnant of his childhood in Poland, though his Australian accent is stronger than mine. Two common ones for him are "I'm really tired and sick of this," and "Sorry very much," following which he always gives a high-pitched, nasal chuckle, which never fails to make me smile in return. When we talk, he mostly talks about his family and his World of Warcraft clan, who have strictly scheduled times during which everyone must be online. Often as he walks off towards his room, he says over his shoulder, "Can't now talk, we're raiding." He wears sandals around the house, which slap against the tiles as he walks, making a noise that reverberates down the dark hallway. Every weekday he leaves the house before sunrise (his car is gone when I wake up), and is back in the early afternoon. When he comes home he puts a small pot of soup on the stove, then sits in his room until it boils. After eating it he plays video games with the sound turned up high, making sounds of clanging swords and fiery explosions until about 9pm.
Anna is a veterinary student at the same university as me, a classmate of my sister's. She is an Asian girl in her mid-20s, who tutors biology students in our living room on some weekends. Her room is next to Eddie's, but the noise doesn't seem to bother her. Or at least, she has never complained. She drives to the university most mornings, an hour or two after I leave. A few times I've gone with her, on days when my classes have started at the same time as hers. She and I sat in traffic and stared ahead, struggling to make conversation. Her boyfriend Martin comes over maybe twice a week, and she cooks dinner for him. For at least an hour before he knocks on our door, she moves about the kitchen, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand, several steaming pots on the stove, the long bench covered by the mass of market-bought vegetables, mixing bowls, cutting boards, and other paraphernalia. They eat at the table, and she seems to do most of the talking. On these nights the sink is always filled by a stack of crockery and utensils. I wait until they go to her room, then wash the things I need before making my own dinner. A few times I found her late at night, studying at the living room table, and asked where Martin was. She said he was sleeping in her bed, and she didn’t want to disturb him. She has mentioned in casual conversation that she is going to break up with him after he does the photography at her graduation.
Nathan is the one I find most interesting, despite his being, or perhaps because he is, almost a total mystery. He lives in the room adjacent to mine, and has been here longer than any of us, though neither of the others knows how long. He is a tall, slender man, perhaps in his early 30s, but his face is hidden by a chest-length beard that leaves only his nose, eyes, and forehead visible. He shaves his head to a number one or two, and clearly takes good care of his beard, which looks soft and hangs straight down. Each month a copy of Engineers Australia magazine arrives for him, so we presume that he is an engineer of some sort. In total, he and I have probably shared fewer than 50 words since I moved in. Before moving in we organised everything by email, and since then we have passed each other in the hallway without even saying hello, both of us keeping our eyes on the floor.
Nathan is, in a way, the caretaker of the house. We each pay him our rent, and he pays the rental agency. He is the only one who has ever met the landlord, according to Eddie. He pays the bills, then attaches a note to the fridge listing what each of us owes him. I transfer the money to him and strike my name off the note, without speaking to him. If we don’t pay him, he just adds it next to our name on the next note. He owns the contents of the shared areas, at least by default, since the tables, chairs, fridge, microwave, saucepans, washing machine, and all the rest, were sitting in the house when we each moved in, accumulated from past tenants. He maintains the wireless Internet, with a network called 'NACKERS'. Neither Eddie or Anna could tell me if that name meant anything.
When he speaks, which is very rarely, his voice comes out like it first has to break through some kind of internal barrier — for a moment there is only a breathy wheeze, and then his dry, croaking voice bursts out on top of it, always too loud for the room. It resonates throughout the house. He speaks as quickly as he can, responding to a question before the last word has been said. Occasionally I hear him talking on the phone in the next room, and it always seems to be about work — "hh-Yes. hh-Yes. hh-OK. Whhe can work that out tomorrow. hh-Alright. Bhhye." Only once have I heard him talking to anyone else in person, other than an occasional “Hello” to Eddie and Anna. It was a young female voice, which I heard through my bedroom wall one weekend morning. She said very little, and he talked in serious tones about the bombing of Dresden. They spoke for maybe half an hour before she left. His final words before saying goodbye were, "Just always remember that history is written by the victors," and she replied, "OK". As far as I can tell, she hasn’t been back.
Every month or so, he disappears for a week, presumably for work. Last year, when he had been gone for three weeks so far, I asked Eddie if he thought something might have happened. He was as uncertain as me — “Maybe he’s overseas?”, he said. “We should maybe open his door, have a little round look, he he.” Without saying it, I think we both imagined that he just might be dead in there, lying on the carpet or slumped beside the toilet. We opened his door slowly to let a sliver of the hallway’s light expand in a sweep across the room, not knowing what it might show. It showed just what we should have expected — nothing. A spotlessly clean room, a perfectly made bed, towels neatly folded on the vanity in the ensuite, no dust, not a thing out of place. Curtains drawn, keeping the room in perpetual twilight. No shelves, just a bed, an office chair, and a wide computer desk in the corner with two monitors, a gaming keyboard, and a pair of huge black speakers.
Lately I have started thinking that this house has great potential. People say that the worst house on a good street is the best place to renovate, and I think this could be a nice family home if someone put in the work. On Saturday mornings I hang my laundry out, and then sometimes walk around the garden, making a mental list of the improvements that could be made. The pergola needs new timber, the muddy side paths should be paved, the gutters need cleaning out, the dead bushes need to be pulled up and taken away, the tin shed needs a new door, and everywhere the place just needs to be cleaned up. Every plant that has survived the years of neglect has sprawled out in one direction or another, and the trees are tangled up in vines that are growing from somewhere deeper in the yard, as-yet inaccessible. The area outside the back door is concrete, covered by a shade-sail that is mouldy and sagging under the weight of accumulated leaves and debris. Lichen is growing on its corners. Sitting under it is a dining table, big enough to seat eight and painted white. The legs are speckled to halfway up with mud, and the top surface has raised bubble-like spots of spongy expanded wood, from being repeatedly soaked in rain water and dried by the intense Queensland sun. I've stared at this table many times now, because along with the rest it is also covered in black permanent marker, where what looks like a group of people have made cartoon drawings, scrawled notes, transcribed drunken quotes, traced hands and other body parts, and in so doing almost covered the entire surface of the table. One leg has a fishnet stocking and a lacey garter drawn on, one corner has a tightly-packed maze, and around the four narrow edges of its top is a string of dots, assorted fruits, and four ghosts, all ready to be eaten by an angry Pac-Man. On the edge furthest from the house, there is a very skillful caricature of a sphinx, sitting alert and smiling, with large human breasts on its chest. Running underneath it, like a underline for emphasis, is written, “Nackers needs more beer.”
I can’t help imagining that Nathan was not always the person I see today. I imagine that maybe he is only silent because he is alone, not the other way around. Maybe he is as unhappy with his solitude as I am. Maybe he is not solitary by his nature, but due to something that changed in his life, something out of his control. Where are his friends, who drank, laughed, and wrote on the table? Why do we have three sofas, enough for six people or more, when not even he sits on them? I think we are generally biased in thinking that other people are more like ourselves than they really are — why would anyone feel differently from the way we do ourselves? In Nathan’s case, though, I think I have made the mistake of thinking that he is just what he appears, both inside and out, when to another observer in this house I am just as silent, perhaps giving even less of myself away; but inside I am longing for the times when I had close friends, and laughed every day. Perhaps the steady march of our lives left both of us alone, recognising very little in each other, and walking past without a word.