This piece is an excerpt from Scarfie Flats of Dunedin by Sarah Gallagher with Ian Chapman.
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that January when I arrived in Dunedin. I stood in front of the dirty shallow porch of my flat and it wasn’t quite as I’d remembered on my first viewing four months earlier. My parents were standing behind me quietly radiating horror. 888 Cumberland Street was a saggingly derelict weatherboard terrace house, built around 1880 by George Aldrich. It looked it’s age and seemed to be propped up by its neighbours.
I was a naive 18 year old from Christchurch trying to save a bit of money by flatting rather than going into Halls. My best friend and I had decided to move to Otago together with dreams of attending Varsity to study art history and classics, imagining we’d be taking part in student protests, solving the world’s problems over illegal drinks at the Robbie or Albert Arms, and attaining svelte silhouettes by living on Two Minute Noodles. It was to be a great adventure, this leaving my family and friends in Christchurch, embarking on an independent life and creating a new home of my own. It was all terribly romantic. I was a genuinely fresh-faced ‘first in family’ student enrolled at both Dunedin Teachers College and the University of Otago, firmly wearing a pair of rose-tinted glasses.
Within two weeks my friend moved back home, the subjects she wanted to do clashed and I ended up flatting with three guys. I was the youngest by 3 years but we all got on well and they kept a brotherly-eye out for me. Our flat came with a name but the sign was uninspired and lacking aesthetic appeal – a rough square of flaking chipboard, the kind that turns to weetbix when it gets wet with Mouse House casually, carelessly, sprayed on it in black. My memory is that we were keen on having a flat name but couldn’t think of anything better, and then one day, the reason behind the name became clear, and the sign was hung out.
We discovered we had a mouse problem, and given we inherited the name, the residents the year before us had obviously experienced this problem too! We caught mice mainly in the kitchen-living-dining room. We kept finding mouse shit on top of the stove so we’d set traps there in the evening. Occasionally I’d hear the snap in the dark of night as I lay in bed upstairs, in the room above the kitchen. I added to the sign, making it our own by drawing cartoon mice on the crumbly board with a black Vivid marker, and tallying up our mouse kills on it. I certainly felt more connected to the sign and the name once its meaning became clear, and drew an additional sign on the tea chest we used as a TV stand. The TV was an example of the ubiquitous cathode ray tube (CRT) us kids of the 1970s and 1980s grew up with. There was no remote, just a long piece of cane with a message written on it in red ink, “hit someone until they change the channel”. One of the flat mantras, introduced by my flatmate who was studying politics was often recited, “Television is control. Avoid it at all costs.” The toilet, Potter-like, was under the stairs and slowly filled with carefully stacked spent toilet rolls over the course of the year. And while I was used to the cold, having grown up in Christchurch, what I wasn’t used to was the decrepitude of the building, the washing machine outside in the coal shed, the sinking bits of floor under the linoleum, the wavering party wall between the flats, windows that wouldn’t lock. It didn’t feel entirely safe.
The year prior to my moving to Dunedin, David Grey shot 14 people dead in Aramoana on 13 November 1990. A serious student riot had also taken place on Castle Street earlier that year . The Otago Daily Times reported, “About 1500 drunken students caused havoc in North Dunedin on Saturday night after they upturned cars, lit street fires and pelted police with bottles and bricks.” I remember someone tried selling t-shirts proclaiming, “Dunedin. It’s all riot here!” – they were banned.
Operation Desert Storm commenced on 17th January 1991. I remember hearing the broadcast on the radio as we drove south on State Highway One, my parents about to leave me at my first home away from home on Cumberland Street. So my experience of moving to Dunedin had a foundation of anxiety about the potential for violence both in my new city and overseas, bringing back echoes of my childhood fears of nuclear war. Fees were on their way in, as were reduced entitlements to student allowances. Student culture was changing from practically free to a user pays model and typically some students found loopholes in the system and married complete strangers in a bid to increase their living stipend, and ‘stick it to the man’. Protests around fees increased, culminating spectacularly in 1993 with an occupation of the clocktower and altercations with the police saw batons on campus. In 1995 the five members of the Bain family were murdered the day after we had rehearsals for the Classics Department’s production of Oedipus Rex.
I had no idea what I was in for moving to Dunedin. That first year was a really hard year, and it was lonely. I didn’t really connect with College (except art and photography) but loved the challenge and autonomy of Varsity. I had a part time job washing dishes at the Tip Top Restaurant in the Octagon on Friday nights – not conducive to going out and getting to know people – and I broke up with my boyfriend back home. It was hard making friends because I was so abjectly miserable and being completely honest, it’s possible I had depression and should have asked for help but I was too sad and ignorant about mental health to recognise I could be in trouble. I was bewildered and overwhelmed by all the people my age living in the same suburb. And I felt bad about it because I should have been excited to be there … right?
Around the corner on Castle Street there were regular parties where students would get drunk and play ‘Super Bottle’ and ‘Skuds and Patriots’ resulting in a patina of glass across the street. David Eggleton sums it up in his review of Carl Shuker’s, The Lazy Boys, “ In the 60s they burnt US flags; in the 70s they burnt bras; and in the 90s, in Dunedin, they started burning couches. Idealism was replaced by nihilism.” I looked forward to the rain coming to wash away the crustaceans of glass and desiccated vomit off Castle Street. This wasn’t my scene. But don’t worry reader, it did get better. The transition was like free-fall but in time I did find my people, I did take part in protests, I did go to parties (but not on Castle). I fell in love with Varsity and developed wonderful friendships I still hold very dear to my heart. But I didn’t attain a svelte silhouette because in Mouse House we discovered we made a mean pumpkin pie.
My rent was $50 a week and I spent a further $5 a week on stamps, writing long letters home to my friends and family. Toll calls cost and there were no mobile phones, and no email in the early 1990s. I received a lot of letters that year from my sister and friends who were back in Christchurch, and my Mum would write often, filling envelopes with news from home, and clippings from the newspaper she thought I’d be interested in. She often included Mouse House in the address. Later in the year, once we’d declared our intention not to stay in the flat, our landlord requested we remove the sign while the annual flat hunt was on. While the name Mouse House grew on us, the flat did not. We had little affection for it and I think we were all pleased to move on to different flats the following year.
This piece is an excerpt from Scarfie Flats of Dunedin by Sarah Gallagher with Ian Chapman, Imagination Press, Auckland, 2019.
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