It appeared the week the four of us moved in. First it was a shadow in the corner, nothing. Then its territory started to expand, then recede, sometimes within the space of a few moments. You would turn the kettle on, and there would be a dark shadow under the windowsill, and then when you poured it out, it was gone like a trick of the light.
We noticed it at different times, in the rare moments when we were alone inside the house. As a result, each of us suspected, or perhaps feared, we were the only person who saw it. The other fear that we had was that this was something that the others had seen, but they thought it was normal. The possibility that our points of view were so misaligned was troubling. So, for a rather uncomfortable period we tried to convince ourselves that it wasn’t a big deal, assuming that the other three thought so as well. It made things a little awkward. We knew that it wasn’t right, but we didn’t want to cause trouble. In every pause, when the conversation would naturally move to another topic, there was always the option to bring up our concerns about the house. But it was easier not to talk about it, so we didn’t.
Finally, while we were sitting in the back porch eating breakfast, one of us lifted his piece of toast to his mouth and set it back on the plate, shook his head and announced that there was something that he really needed to talk to us about. When he shook his head, some of the small green flowers from the grapevine fell from his hair into his cup of coffee. One of us leant over and removed them by dipping her finger into the liquid and drawing them out. What’s going on, she said.
Well, he said, it’s happened a few times, I think. Have you ever noticed the mould on the walls?
It was a huge relief. The rest of us sighed, and our postures relaxed. One of us, her hand still on her forehead, the wide sleeve of her dressing gown falling down her upper arm, closed her eyes and shook her head. I’m so glad you said something, she said. I thought I was losing it.
I’ve noticed it too, said someone else. In the corners, near the ceiling. But it seems to go away, after a while. They turned to their neighbour, who nodded, blinking while she thought of how to phrase it, pressing her lips inwards. I don’t think it’s mould, though.
After that, the shadows solidified into dark red stains which started to appear everywhere and no longer disappeared when we looked back at them.
It felt good to know that we were living in a shared reality again. For a long time, we had felt that no one saw our perspective. It was true that we had been peripherally involved in a sequence of events that had precipitated several cardinal break ups in our circle of friends. While we were sure that we hadn’t done anything explicitly immoral, we still felt guilty. And everyone was still very hurt, and a lot of people had to move house, so we had decided to live together. For the first few days, we neurotically cleaned, swept the leaves in the garden and cooked large meals which we ate sitting on the floor, and passed around our evolving perspectives of our own imperfect behaviour. It seemed, during those conversations, that everything we said was completely understood. So when the red stains started seeping out of the walls, it was more the shock of the isolated experience than the content of the experience itself that caused the most discomfort.
Despite this, the stains were becoming unbearable. We all noticed and confirmed with one another that it was getting worse. It had reached the point where we would have to do something other than pass pained looks between ourselves.
We all noticed and confirmed with one another that it was getting worse. It had reached the point where we would have to do something other than pass pained looks between ourselves.
They weren’t really stains. It wasn’t mould, either. The substance was dark red and first appeared flat and dry. By the evening it was fuzzy and thick. Gradually it accumulated small protrusions, a wet sheen, and expanded like a yeasted dough. It hung on the walls in slack bulges. In this mature stage it gave off tortuous vessels that fed new membranous territories. These expanded from the walls across the ceiling and threatened to drip clear red liquid onto our heads, but never did. It didn’t have a smell that we could define, but it created a sense of foreboding, and before we opened the door to one of the rooms we could tell if the stain had spread within.
We could tell it was some kind of living thing.
Finally, one of us decided we would do what she described as a “deep clean”. She bought four pairs of thick rubber gloves from the hardware store on Sydney Road, and a roll of pale blue cleaning rags. All day we wiped red stains from the walls, collecting the soft matter in buckets, and flushed them down the outside toilet. And for a few days after that, we felt that we had really achieved something. When we passed each other in the hallways, we would look at the walls or rest our hands on the smooth surfaces, then smile and go on our way. But the outside toilet was never the same, and we needed to fill the cistern with a bucket. In any case, it was all for nothing, because soon the red stains returned, and they were everywhere this time. During that time, we were all very sad. We felt like we had made things worse.
When we told our friends about the stains, they didn’t believe us. We invited them over, and they promised to come, but there was always a reason that they weren’t able to make it. One, seeing our distress, made a promise, but then he was involved in a cycling accident on the way over. People we told thought it was, at worst, the same kind of mould that mottled the ceilings of their own bathrooms in their own share houses without affecting their lives in any other way. Someone suggested that it was like a statue that they had heard of, that cried tears of blood. The statue, they said, was a hoax; but maybe there was some kind of set of hollows in the walls that had created the same situation by chance. Some of us thought there was a hidden meaning in this interpretation, like the red stains represented some kind of cosmic punishment. Overall it seemed like everyone else saw it as a funny inconvenience.
In reality, it was a very difficult time for all of us. We couldn’t sleep. We were uncomfortable in our own bodies as it was impossible to feel clean. We would sit around eating and suddenly the rooms felt stuffy and musty and we would all lose our appetites. We had headaches and back aches, which we all knew were due to the stains. And we felt tired all the time, and kind of irritable and easily annoyed by each other, which was kind of new for us. We had known each other for many years, inheriting each other’s residences in the constellation of share houses that all our friends lived in: we loved each other very dearly and enjoyed each other’s company more than that of anyone else we knew.
Then it all ended. One morning, instead of being immediately repulsed by the thick matter that coated the walls, our bedrooms were clean and smelled fresh. Someone suggested the stains had dried off the walls overnight, but there was no sign that they had ever been there. What about the flakes? one of us said. Maybe there was a wind that blew them away, said another. Eventually we did find a bit of dust in the corners, but it was hard to tell if it was the residue of this strange substance, or if it was normal dust that had been there all along.
For a few weeks, we were delighted. None of us ached. We didn’t feel grumpy or tired. Our friends came over, and one of us made a huge massaman curry. It was the happiest we had felt for a long time, as we felt like this dark period in our lives was well and truly behind us.
It returned a few weeks later. Over the course of the weekend every surface was covered, and the house was warm, musty, and humid. One evening we sat on the back porch, glumly eating chips for dinner. What are we going to do? someone asked. We chewed. Eventually, we decided that, though it was Sunday, it was the time to call the real estate agent’s emergency after-hours line.
They’re not going to believe us, one of us said, licking salt from between his fingers.
Why not? They pulled their hair back from their face, and, now that everyone had stopped eating, started to roll a cigarette. They looked down at it, wetting their lip, and said, There are four of us. We can’t all have the same hallucination.
I know, he said. You know real estate agents, though.
For a while we all contemplated our previous experiences interacting with real estate agents, reflecting on the unique depths of human misery to which their injustice had subjected us.
I’ll do it, someone said, flicking a strip of twisted paper from the chip parcel into the box.
The phone rang out, and she left a voicemail. It was late, and we reluctantly trooped back into the house, gingerly walking along the exact centre of the hallway. In our rooms, we lay on the sides of our beds that were furthest from the wall.
We found ourselves spontaneously congregating on the back porch again a few hours later, hair rumpled and faces pale. None of us had slept, and we all felt a bit unwell.
We should just sleep out, someone said, and we went inside to get camping mats and bedding.
Under the blankets, we lay together very still, careful not to touch one another. When one of us moved, it cause a chain reaction of turning, a rearranging of arms and legs. But the air was sweet and soft, and we soon fell asleep, despite the wind that moved over our faces and the sounds of cars and trees. In the morning, we found ourselves huddled together, faces pressed against backs and legs intertwined, and even after we had realised that we were all awake, we lay there saying nothing for long time.
We couldn’t sleep. We were uncomfortable in our own bodies as it was impossible to feel clean. We would sit around eating and suddenly the rooms felt stuffy and musty and we would all lose our appetites. We had headaches and back aches, which we all knew were due to the stains.
When autumn came, we decided to build a shelter. We started a few days before the stains were due to reappear. We knew they were coming. When we had headaches and back aches, we imagined that we could see shadows on the walls.
By the time that the landlord returned our call, it was Thursday and, to our supreme irritation, the red stains had disappeared.
This sequence of events—the reappearance of the red stains, the call to the real estate agent, sleeping on the porch, and the sudden recession of the stains’ territory and the return to the house being in its previous state by the time the agent had returned the call—reoccurred several times over the course of the summer. To be fair to the estate agent, they did send someone around. But there was nothing we could show him and when he tested the walls with his machine, there was no humidity. We knew the stains would return and came to anticipate it. We could tell by our symptoms. At first, we thought we were very unwell and went to the GP: we filed into his consulting room, and because there weren’t enough chairs for all of us, two of us had perched on the examination table, swinging their legs. The battery of tests and examinations he subjected us to revealed that we were all in perfect health, despite how terrible we all felt, and, though he listened to our reports of the red stains, and peered at the dust we brought in an small jar, he assured us that our lungs all sounded pure and that these things did happen from time to time, and it was nothing to worry about.
In private conferences between individual members of the house, we acknowledged that we were kind of grateful for the intrusion of the stains. It seemed like it was a natural outlet for our frustration and anxiety, which might have found a home in some invented place in the new intimacies of our friendship. It was only human nature to search for some imperfection in life and, when one does not present itself, to create one to fill the void. We all knew too well this impulse and the necessity to contain it.
When autumn came, we decided to build a shelter. We started a few days before the stains were due to reappear. We knew they were coming. When we had headaches and back aches, we imagined that we could see shadows on the walls. One of us went to Bunnings and came back with a few rolled up mats of bamboo. We arranged these on the porch, covered the roof with a tarp and spread some of the thick leaves of the neighbour’s monstera over the top. Someone hung a string of fairy lights inside and an old sarong. We slept inside it the night before the red stains were due to appear. But in the morning the walls were still smooth.
Despite this, we anticipated the return of the red stains at any moment and spent most of our free time perfecting the shelter. We found old bits of furniture and sewed cushions. Someone saw a large wooden chest on the nature strip, and two of us walked it back to the house. In it, we stored the extra blankets we had acquired from an op shop for the cold nights. We talked about how we might make the shelter a permanent part of our house and how we could use it even when the house was clean. We had started to enjoy sleeping outside and had gotten used to the feeling of bodies lying on either side, the comfort of the childlike affection we demonstrated towards each other. It felt natural to sleep with each other’s hands on our flanks, breathing in the scent of their hair and skin. We had come to be familiar with the activity of the others during sleep; that one of us slept with their eyes not quite shut or that when we shifted away, others would fold themselves over us again automatically.
Weeks passed, and we started to feel like we couldn’t precisely remember the red stains. We still slept on the porch almost every night; the season was mild and the air was sweet, and we each realised that we felt more rested this way. But it couldn’t go on forever; someone had mentioned this practice to one of our friends, and they thought it was extremely strange, perhaps inappropriate. Feeling self-conscious, we returned to our rooms and laughed off our sleepovers, as if they were something we used to do long ago, when we were different sorts of people—but it didn’t feel right. It was almost a relief when the stains reappeared, and we were able to return to the shelter to lie in each others’ loose embrace, watching the corner of the tarp wave in the night breeze.
In winter, we reinforced the roof of the shelter and slept in camping thermals, our limbs knotted up like gestating lambs. It was so cold that we slept in beanies and cradled hot water bottles against our stomachs. One night a corner of the tarp became undone in a storm and after we had fixed it, we had to squish together on the dry part of our bed. Our old friends started inviting us to parties again and introduced us to their new partners. They seemed like very nice people.
The lease came up in November, and the landlord, perhaps as the result of our many complaints about the house, decided not to renew it. We agreed that we would prefer to live together and made plans to look at potential houses, but somehow, we never got around to it. Besides, nearly all of us had other offers, and as the last day drew closer, we accepted them. A week before the lease was up, everyone but me had moved out. The house was nearly empty of furniture—we never had much anyway—except for the shelter and its contents. I cleaned up everything but I couldn’t bring myself to take it down. Not alone. I decided to leave it all as it was. Before I left, I slept there one last night. In my dream, light scattered off the scales of shoals of fish, twisting and turning as one in secret seas beneath the house.