All the places you think are real, are real. Events and people are pure invention.
I had kept the market guy’s card (those blue eyes! Those arms!) and called him to ask where the crate of things came from. I spent a minute describing who I was, what I bought, and he said, “Yeah, the one with the really nice green eyes.”
That threw me a bit. I was wrapped in a blanket (my place was so cold), feeling very far from sexy. The humming in my ears was louder than ever. I could pick out a word every now and then Lonely I thought and Sad which made me worry about my own sanity.
“I just wanted to ask you where the box of stuff came from.”
“Why’s that?” he said, after a pause.
“Just this weird coincidence. One of the things, that little wooden car, belongs to a friend of mine. She hasn’t seen it for over twenty years.”
He asked me to meet him at George Harcourt Inn, a place I hadn’t been since I first moved to Canberra 15 years earlier.
Margaret came over to babysit the kids, even though they are old enough now to whinge about being babysat. She promised them she’d make scones and homemade Bolognese, not from a jar, so they were pretty happy.
I dressed up more than I should — good underwear, the uplift bra. I felt like an idiot — this wasn’t a date. It was a weird thing I needed to focus on.
He’d dressed up, too. He had a shirt on, and his hair was wet-combed. His face shaved. We greeted each other awkwardly, then he got us drinks (beer for both of us; I was pleasantly surprised by the choices) and we made small talk about the market for a while.
“So…” I said. “I was just wondering where you got the crate from.” I had brought it with me and felt awkward about that, so had hidden it under the table. I heard a creaking, and he cocked his head, as if he heard it.
He was a stranger. He had no agenda, so I decided to take a chance.
“Because I think the things in it might be haunted.”
He didn’t laugh. “You’ve seen them?”
“Heard them. That creaking noise? Can you hear that? And I’ve felt like a shadow over me. If that makes sense.”
“Has anyone else seen or heard?”
“I’m not asking anyone that! Have you heard them?”
“I can hear that creaking noise. And I saw that shadow thing you’re talking about.”
“You know the Allawah Flats, right?”
Anyone who lived in Canberra knew them. A headline in the Canberra Times had said, “The Public Menace of Blight”. The biggest uproar was that they didn’t acknowledge where they got the quote from.
“Did you know they kicked all the people out? They’re knocking that shithole down, building million dollar apartments. And act like they’re doing us a favour.”
It was the sort of thing you read about but didn’t think much about.
I got us another beer.
He told me that when they closed the Allawah flats down, the people were shifted in bus loads to their new ‘location’, they called it. They could only take a suitcase each and as much as they could carry. All furniture would be destroyed, being riddled with white ant. All items left behind would go to the tip.
“They got us in to clear the place out before the wreckers. We had to cart the furniture downstairs and you can bet we checked under all the couches and chair cushions, and under mattresses. Any cash we found we kept. Nobody would deny us that. Documents we handed in but I reckon they were all chucked out. Jewellery we kept. It was only going into the rubbish so why waste it?”
I didn’t correct him. If it was going the tip, it wasn’t rubbish.
They found boxes of toys, books, cupboards with clothes still hanging in them. They found stuff that had clearly been stolen, like brass drain gratings and large amounts of toiletries, all unused.
All the tiny treasures of a person’s life.
“We kept a fair bit of stuff but before long it all started to look like junk. Some of it had sentimental value, I guess, like the piles of Christmas Cards we found in their letter boxes, but most of it didn’t even have that. Just junk. No money in it. We’d been working a week or more, and had only one last floor of one last building. We’d been avoiding this one. Making jokes all along, but at the same time, it freaked us all out a bit. People told stories about this floor. Ghosts and that. There’d been more deaths on this floor than all the others put together. Murders and suicides and overdoses. All sorts of shit. People said everyone who died was still there, wanting to jump our bones. Find a new body to live in.”
“Do you believe all that?”
“I didn’t. Till we went into 15P.”
Bram Stoker, twice-World Fantasy Award Nominee and Shirley Jackson Award winner Kaaron Warren has lived in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Fiji. She’s sold more than 200 short stories, three novels (the multi-award-winning Slights, Walking the Tree and Mistification) and six short story collections including the multi-award-winning Through Splintered Walls. Her latest short story collection is Cemetery Dance Select: Kaaron Warren. You can find her at kaaronwarren.wordpress.com and she Tweets @KaaronWarren
Part five of The Public Menace of Blight will be published on the site tomorrow.
The title comes from Pritchett, Wendell E. 2003. The “Public Menace” of Blight: Urban Renewal and the Private Uses of Eminent Domain. Yale Law & Policy Review 21, 1-52.