May 2020


Rough draught

By Robert Skinner
Keeping up appearances during periods of homelessness

The main problem with my living arrangements was that I hadn’t made any. As we loaded my things into a rental van my housemate asked, “Where to now?”

I waved a hand. “Oh, it always works out.”

I was in the short-story business at the time – specifically, a magazine called The Canary Press, which was going great in every respect except the financial ones. I dropped my things in our office and moved into my friend Alex’s shed.

If you find yourself sleeping on the floor of a shed, it’s easy to believe you’re in the early stages of greatness, rather than just going badly. As a society, we are enamoured with the Cinderella story. I lay on the grease-stained carpet, as the wind whipped in and under the door, waiting for the ol’ upswing in fortunes, thinking, Any moment now!

Then, surprisingly, improbably, things got slightly worse.

My friend Alex sat me down in the kitchen to tell me he was moving out of the share house and into an apartment with his girlfriend.

“Does it have a shed?”

It did not.

Around this time, I was invited by a university to give a talk called “How to Make It in Business”. I spent 10 minutes beforehand staring hungrily at everyone’s muffins.

“The best way to become a millionaire,” said my dad, “is to start with a billion and work your way down.” For various reasons this hadn’t panned out. I spent the rest of the year sleeping around, and when I ran out of friends to call on for favours, I started carrying my swag to the local cricket club/dog park. The plan was to funnel leftover rent money into the magazine.

I was sleeping in what might reasonably be described as a ditch, though I tried not to think of it in those terms for morale reasons. I was laid out on a flat strip of ground under the spreading branches of a tree, between a wooden fence line and a grassy hillock that more or less shielded me from view.

On my first night I woke up thirsty in the wee hours and went padding off barefoot looking for a drink. There were no drinking fountains, so I hopped the fence into someone’s yard and drank straight from a garden hose under a big, boisterous moon that no one else was around to see. I felt a thrill that night, of standing, very briefly, on the edge of civilisation.

In the mornings I’d roll up my swag, hoick my things onto my back and scuttle off like a crab to avoid being seen. Once that initial indignity was over, I blended in with the citizenry. I’d stop off at a local cafe, brush my teeth, drink a coffee, read a few poems. Then I’d cycle to our office where we spent all day banging on the gates of Australian literature.

There are all sorts of barriers stopping people getting to the top. It’s interesting to consider how much energy goes into stopping people sneaking out the bottom way. We install spikes under bridges (as one might do against pigeons), build impossible-to-sleep-upon benches, and pay police to move people on from whatever safe and dry place they’ve found.

My own problems, perhaps befitting the fa­­mily-friendly suburb I was roughing it in, were of the canine variety.

I had been sleeping at the cricket club on and off for most of the summer. There had been some ­unfortunate moments – like the night I was swarmed by ­mosquitoes, or the night I was having drinks with a yoga instructor and it seemed to be going well because she gave me a look and said, “So... where do you live, Robert?” and, not wanting to get into that whole ­situation, I described at length the bucolic scenes and green vistas of the cricket club while remaining vague on the details of my vantage point, but later, when I ­suggested we go back to her place, she was still so taken by my description of the view that she insisted we go back to mine. Overall, though, it hadn’t been such a ­terrible time.

On most nights I lay under the spreading branches of a tree, preoccupied with the business of running a short-story magazine. Better to sleep on hard ground with a sense of purpose, I thought, than in eiderdown without one.

On the first day of autumn, I was invited to a literary gala. I knew it was autumn because I woke up covered in leaves. I hobnobbed with the best of them that evening. There were drinks and salmon cakes. I made eyes with the minister for the arts. At midnight, I wobbled home drunk on my bike to resume my residence at the cricket club.

The next morning, I was awoken by the whining of a beagle. With great trepidation I opened my swag and peeked outside. She obviously thought that something worse than a hangover had befallen me, because she was pawing at the ground and whining anxiously. I tried to give her a thumbs up, but it can’t have been convincing because she looked at me sideways and started letting off high-pitched distress signals. Even now, I wonder if she knew more about publishing than I did. She seemed genuinely concerned. I tried to shoo her away with a back issue I kept handy and the beagle lost her mind. She let loose with these crazed and horrified barks that brought people running from everywhere.

In a panic, I started bundling up my things. I made for the exits, trailing clothes and blankets. Faces appeared on the ridge. As I ran I half-turned and shouted something to the effect of, “Please buy our magazine!” But it had no discernible influence on sales.

I say this with sincerity: those were the days. When you’re so passionate about something that you barely care where you sleep.

Two years later I was homeless again and sleeping in the back of a van. This time there was no magazine, no great mission. I was just sort of lying there without a house.

On my first night in the van, I felt a familiar exhilaration: Ha ha, they’ll never find me here! But this time it was followed with: How will anyone find me here?

One night I spent six hours driving around Brunswick looking for a park outside a place with free wifi so I could download When Harry Met Sally on my laptop, and I thought: What if it’s just this, forever?

I crawled into the back of the van and read a sweet, trusty book by the glow of a head torch whose batteries would die in the middle of the night. That’s where I was, fast asleep, when someone broke in.

When I came to, I could feel a draught coming in through an open door. Torchlight bounced around nightmarishly in the front of the van. Someone was rifling through the things on the passenger seat and reciting its contents to an accomplice behind him. I woke up because I heard him say, “Banana.”

I yelled, “HEY!”

I bellowed it, like a madman trying to shake himself loose from a bad dream.

The two thieves bolted. I jumped into the front of the van, pulled the door shut, and saw them streaking through the night. Blood was roaring in my ears. The van was no longer a sanctuary. Suddenly it felt like there were no safe places left on earth.

I started the engine and swung out of the parking spot. I thought that I’d have to go after them, maybe run one of them down, that there’d be no peace for any of us until one of us was dead.

They had run out of the cul-de-sac and onto the main road, but I didn’t know where, or which way I should go. I flicked on the headlights.

The dashboard clock showed 1.34am. I sat for a while with the wipers going, watching through the windscreen at the only way in and out of the street.

And eventually, for lack of better ideas, I ate the banana.

Robert Skinner

Robert Skinner was born and raised on the Adelaide Plains. He is now based in Melbourne.

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