Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Cohabition: you can’t choose your family, and sometimes you can’t choose your housemates either

I’m in the throes of finding my son accommodation for next year as he is going to be at university in a neighbouring town, too far away to commute daily. He’s a hermit at the best of times so a singular existence isn’t an option – he will, without doubt, simply fall off the radar – but finding people he’ll be able to share with in some degree of contentment also has its difficulties.

For the first four or so years I lived in Cape Town, it was in communal houses – they were relatively cheap, someone else usually held the lease (which meant little or no responsibility for me) and there was company on tap. But communal living also threw me – with varying degrees of violence – into the path of people who had… well, let’s just call it strange ways of living.

There was The Man With The Mucky Mattress. His bedroom contained one mattress and a pile of clothes - that’s all. He had no bedlinen and didn’t want any (I offered), and the mattress had, nastily, a ghastly black streak of grime down its middle where this man slept every night. The pile of clothes constituted his wardrobe, out of which he would pluck garments apparently at random to wear each day; when he went to sleep each night on his filthy mattress, he stripped off whatever he’d been wearing and simply threw it back on the pile. He never washed anything. Ever.

There was The Woman Who Didn’t Wash Dishes. She didn’t come from a particularly well-to-do background (and so, we assumed, wasn’t naturally used to servants doing her dirty work for her), but this woman brazenly stated that she ‘didn’t’ wash dishes. What began as a joke (we thought) grew into a full-scale kitchen war, with stacks of her dirty dishes piling up over the weeks, while we washed ours and refused to touch hers. Cockroaches came (and went, with liberal sprayings of Doom), but still she never got her hands wet.

There was The Man Who Hoarded Toilet Rolls. Nobody had much money, so communal grocery shopping was divvied up down to the last cent, and who the culprit was who was using so much toilet paper became something of an issue. It was only after TMWHTR moved out that we discovered where all the missing bogroll had gone: into a large built-in cupboard in his room which, when we opened its doors after he’d left, disgorged about 100 of them.

There was The Man Who Forgot To Put Out The Garbage. Communal living involves dividing up domestic tasks, and some are less pleasant than others, so we were delighted when TMWFTPOTG offered to take on the garbage detail full time. Until a few months later, when the Municipality delivered a summons on us. Why? TMWFTPOTG had indeed removed the full garbage bags from the kitchen bin – only to stack them in the lane behind the house, never to put out on the street on garbage-collection day. By the time we discovered his lack of follow-through, he’d left; I will never forget the horror of bodily shifting about four months’ worth of maggot-ridden garbage out onto the street for a very disgruntled municipal crew to collect.

There was The Woman With The Cats. We interviewed her, we liked her, we invited her to move in. She did, but she brought her four hitherto-unmentioned cats with her. I was allergic; the other housemate just didn’t like moggies. But nothing would induce her to get rid of them or to move to more animal-friendly accommodation. The most antisocial of the creatures, a malicious little tabby, would hide behind cupboards and, choosing its moment carefully, would leap out and claw you as you stumbled, hungover, to the bathroom first thing in the morning.

There were The Perfect Couple. Slim, blond and so alike in their flawless good looks that they could have been twins, this appalling pair of people would wake the house up with teeth-grinding good cheer at the crack of dawn and exhort us all to join them on a quick run around Table Mountain or a robust kayak across Table Bay. I loathed them with all my heart. And even more so when having to sit across from them at breakfast: glowing with good health, they would pour matching bowls of muesli – which they would eat with water. Gross.

And – definitely the record-holder in disturbing housemates – there was The Woman Who Had Really Loud Sex. Her bedroom was directly off the living room and if we’d known what we’d be in for, we’d have given her a fallout shelter at the bottom of the garden. The first time she brought home a man, we were surprised – she was such a quiet person. Half an hour later we were hysterical with shock: she was a screamer, and I mean that in the very visceral sense of the word. Even The Jam played at full volume failed to drown out her shrieks. Most bizarrely, by the next morning she was back to her shy, mousy self. I can’t remember what she looked like: I was always too embarrassed to make eye contact with her.

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meggie said...

I love this post. I have experienced some of those people, firsthand. Luckily most of them lived in the flat next door, but I did share with The Married Woman Who Was Lying SO She Told The Baby's Father The Baby Was Mine!
And stole all my sewing needs when she moved out, while I was at work.

Juno said...

Also loved this post, Mur... it takes me back to my three years in Grahamstown, when I shared digs with some truly ghastly troll-like humans - and with some brilliant people who are still my close friends. I met and co-habited with some very strange and lazy characters, but not one of them was as sleazy and nasty as our various landlords and ladies.