The Chest: an excerpt from Jenny Hval's Paradise Rot
In this excerpt Jo, a young Norwegian exchange student in a fictional seaside town in Australia, is struggling to find an apartment and dealing with the everyday effects of misogyny.
The next day the weather had cleared and as I didn’t want to attend ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’ with the others, I decided to walk around Aybourne alone instead. I wandered along the tram tracks between whitewashed buildings and posters advertising cars, diet yoghurts and energy drinks. The sea followed me on the far side. Islands that I could barely see the day before gleamed in the sunshine.
First I tried to reach the edge of town, but no matter what direction I walked I was forced to turn back. The last stop on one of the tracks ended at an orbital motor- way that ran parallel to an electric sheep fence, and I could go no further. In the other direction I found a golf course that ran from the last of the town streets all the way down to the beach. Between the town and the golf course the broad South Gate motorway ran, and I couldn’t find a way to cross it. Eventually I walked upwards to the hills, towards the mountains. This route ended in a picnic area and some dustbins. After that there was nothing. Aybourne was beneath me, closed off in all directions, like a chest with no lid.
Next, I tried to find the university. When I got back into the town centre I pulled out the torn map I’d found in the dining room at the hostel. The map stained my fingers, as if it were melting. My fingertips were deco- rated with imprints of roads and parks. After a little while I had lost my way completely, and I was unsure whether the map I had was old or even if it was for the right town.
The third time I thought I’d found the campus, I realised that I was the one at fault, not the map. I wasn’t on university grounds but I had entered an overgrown garden. It lay by a gigantic grey brick building with archways at the entrance and a pointy Victorian clock tower at the top. This must be city hall, I thought, my finger still on the map, because that was supposed to be in front of the campus. And when I looked closely I could see a faded old engraving on the dark wall: City Hall. A narrow path twisted through the garden towards the archways and when I followed it I found an old sundial in the tall grass. It was around a metre tall, like a pulpit, and wrought in iron with ornaments around its foot. I bent over the sundial to see if it showed the time, but the long dark shadow from the clock tower fell across it, and the sundial was rendered useless, a face without features.
In between the archways someone waved at me, and I noticed the Canadian girls. I waved back and walked over to them.
‘We’re going for dinner, do you wanna join us?’ asked Lauren.
I nodded, happy not to be alone.
In the café I again ordered the dish that was easiest to pronounce.
‘Your English is really great,’ Lauren said.
‘Better than ours!’ They laughed, and she continued: ‘Have you ever lived in England?’
‘No, but we’re taught it in school a lot.’
Lauren and Ella kept chatting about the night before, with big chunks of hamburger in their mouths. They spoke fast about excursions they were going on and said that the university had too little focus on sports and that the town was too windy.
‘Have you found a place to live yet?’ Ella asked.
‘We’re seeing some places tomorrow. If you like you can borrow our newspaper,’ she said and handed me the classified section, dappled with coffee stains and crossings-out.
All the students at the hostel were trying to find permanent accommodation. I spent the next three days in and out of phone boxes, scheduling meetings and visiting numerous flat shares. Mostly they were in apartment blocks, or big two-flat terraces further from the town centre. They were home to neurotic students or hippies with marijuana plants in the back garden. I ran into the Canadians again and again in different apartments. They were confident and tanned and made the tenants laugh. Next to them I felt sombre and pale–the serious Norwegian, Lauren joked. I walked like a ghost through the rooms in house after house, while the visits weaved together in my head, becoming an endless braid of faces, corridors, and small, unfurnished rooms with plaster rosettes around the ceiling lights.
A group of art students who lived in one of the big terrace houses decided to turn their open day into a party. On the balcony a boy with bushy hair and a leather jacket read beat poetry, another served lukewarm punch, and downstairs in the kitchen a girl played guitar and sang Ani DiFranco in a shaky voice. She was wearing a bandana and her legs were unshaven.
‘Are you vegan?’ she asked after she had stopped singing. I shook my head.
‘It doesn’t matter if you’re not. But you should try.’
I nodded. The girl with the bandana shrugged and began a new song.
In between my interviews I sat on park benches and waited for time to pass, alongside homeless people drinking cider from cheap two-litre bottles. They didn’t ask why I didn’t have furniture or how old I was or why my English was so good.
‘You’re young, aren’t you,’ said an older lady sat next to me. That was all. She opened a can of raspberry vodka and didn’t look at me again. Her mascara was running down her cheeks.
The viewings continued. In house after house I left my name and the hostel’s phone number, like a dog marking lampposts. Most people said they would ring when they had come to a decision. In my notebook I jotted down names and addresses, for reference when they called. But no one did, and after searching non-stop for four days I was still without a place to live. On the way home, I caught a tram and passed several stops before I realised it was going in the wrong direction. I got off on a deserted main road and had started the walk back when I heard a deep voice shout from a passing car:
NICE TITS, BITCH!
And then he drove off, fast, and the ’TCH drowned in the noise of the engine. I could feel my cheeks burn and I pulled my jacket tighter around myself.
When I finally got back to the hostel I was tired, cold and certain I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but the receptionist stopped me in the doorway:
‘Someone called for you and left this message.’
She handed me a yellow, folded note. I thanked her and unfolded the paper, excited to see whether I’d been offered a room, but it was just a friendly rejection from the bandana girl:
Dear Jo, the room in 21 Primrose St is now taken. We chose two Canadian girls. Thanks for coming.
This is an edited extract from Paradise Rot, a novel by Jenny Hval.