I’ve had a lot of terrible neighbours since leaving home in my early 20’s, I’ve also had a lot of terrible housemates. This story is about one who belonged to the former.
There were those who moved furniture around at 3 am, threw loud parties until way after midnight, had annoyingly obnoxious theatrical sex with their on and off again partners, those who had horrific fights with their families, and those who had dogs who would cry all day while they were at work.
The worst neighbour of them all? A little old lady and her black cat who lived in the same building as my first apartment in Shanghai.
I must have easily viewed about 25 different places, not counting those where various rental agents took me to the same ones I’d already seen, and the ones where I didn’t even bother going inside because the hoops one had to jump through just to get through the front door weren’t worth the pain.
There were occasions where I had to traipse straight through actual kitchens before getting into certain spots to view them. I walked up multiple stairwells which were so dark you needed a torch to see where you were going – unless you were open to the risk of breaking your neck every time you came home. Don’t even get me started on the dust and the piles of shit people had collected and stored over what could’ve easily been 100 years, in every pathway and passageway you could imagine. It was a nightmare, but one which taught me that you should never judge a book by its cover.
Once you got over some of the more manageable hurdles, you’d open a front door and feel like you’d just gone down a rabbit hole and popped up in an entirely different place – and that’s exactly what happened when I finally found the apartment that became my first home for the first 18 months I lived in Shanghai.
The Former French Concession is a beautiful part of Shanghai that was an area in the city occupied by the French between 1849 – 1943. It’s full of London plane trees, historical old buildings (those that remain unscathed after some turbulent times over the course of history) and quite a few foreign consulates. It’s one of the city’s most expensive residential and retail districts, and if you’ve travelled anywhere else in China and then visited this area you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking you might be in Europe.
The apartment I lived in was a modernly renovated one-bedroom abode on the top floor of an old 3-story mansion that had been very haphazardly converted into a boutique apartment block and stood on Hunan Lu near the corner of Wukang Lu (one of the most picturesque and historical roads in the FFC).
When I first viewed the apartment I did the familiar dance of navigating my way around the initial weirdness I met as walking off the street and down the lane towards the building. It was pouring with rain that day and I was so over the Airbnb we’d been staying in that I hoped like hell this would be it.
As I walked through the door of the old mansion I was immediately transported back in time. A few steps across the creaky old wooden floors and up the first flight of the elaborate spiral staircase, and I reached the second floor – home to a very sweet Chinese couple and their grandson.
Their open kitchen comprised of a camping stove which literally stood on the landing and they didn’t have much in the way of a front door – they were just there in the corner of the second floor. The same floor was also home to a wealthy Chinese couple who lived in a huge apartment which took up the rest of the space. The stark contrast compared to the living arrangements of the people they shared the floor with was astounding.
I walked up the second flight of the spiral staircase and reached an old red door that opened onto the tiny landing of the third floor. On the left of the landing was the front door of the apartment I was viewing, and to the right was what looked like a large open-plan storage area. It was odd because I could see from the outside of the building that there was an extension large enough for a huge apartment like there was downstairs, but all I could see was an area full of “stuff” organised into piles from floor to ceiling.
The apartment’s front door opened onto the small lounge area with a two-seater couch, small coffee table and a square two-seater dining room table. To the left was the kitchen and bathroom, and straight on was the bedroom. The very tiny kitchen had a white quartz countertop, a small gas stove, a built-in electric oven and a fridge.
The bathroom sat just off the kitchen and had a shower, toilet and small vanity. The bedroom contained a queen-size bed frame and mattress, two bedside tables and two small wardrobes on either side of the sliding wooden door, which could be closed and shield the room off from what was left of the 55sqm space.
As the apartment jutted out of the roof of the building it was surrounded by ample windows which filled it with loads of natural light and made it seem less claustrophobic due to its small size. It was a real shoebox and not really big enough for two people, but it was what we could afford and was in a prime and central location.
I asked the rental agent if someone was living in the space across the landing but she said no and explained that it was being used as storage space for the two families living on the floor below. As I’d quickly become quite used to things being a little different to the norm in these circumstances, I shrugged it off and didn’t think about it again.
At least not until the first week of moving into the apartment, when things got very strange.
It first started with shuffling noises coming from beyond the piles of stuff every now and then. Those noises graduated from scratching sounds to sounds coming from a television, and when it was dark enough you could see lights from the tv bouncing off what exposed walls were left in the storage space.
It was a gradual creep as if the person who was there was there all along, but they lay silent in the beginning and then began exposing parts of themselves more and more as the days and weeks went on. The shuffling became more extreme and then finally the sound of a voice began to echo from inside. The tv became louder as if it moved closer to our front door, as did the voice and the meowing of a cat.
It must have been after about two weeks when I messaged the landlord, Vincent. Between my extremely limited Chinese (by extremely limited I mean like 10 words at the time) and his extremely limited English, we managed to communicate via WeChat and translate messages into our respective languages. I asked him if someone was living there, to which he replied “yes”.
I quickly realised that the rental agent had lied to me (zero surprises there), and the person living in the storage space was either not there at the time of me viewing the place or she was told to stay away or stay quiet in the hope of someone taking it. In hindsight, if I’d known at the time and had any idea of how bad it would get, I probably would’ve moved on to other options.
Weeks turned into a couple of months, and by now she’d made herself visible and had earned the title of ’Scratcher’. The story Vincent eventually told me about her, after I insisted on knowing who she was, was that her husband had left her years ago for another woman. She was “mentally unstable”, which made sense considering that she literally lived amongst a collection of plastic shopping bags, biscuit tins and other unidentifiable objects. She had a daughter who lived in Australia and she had lived in the house, along with her equally weird black cat, for years.
It’s important to know that mental health care hasn’t always been top of mind in a country like China, and for a lot of people it went untreated (and likely still does in certain places). It’s extremely sad and something that always bothered me about the culture of turning a blind eye.
Between Scratcher and her cat, they became an absolute nightmare. She grew louder as if she was purposefully trying to drive us away. She would speak on the phone at all hours and sit right outside our front door. At times it was so loud it was like she was literally inside the apartment.
During the summer, where the nights could be extremely warm and humid, she started sleeping naked on a cardboard box on the tiny landing. This caused a lot of shouting and swearing from both parties when you’d been out drinking until 3 am and arrive home, only to open the red door to the landing onto her head and then have to walk over her or tell her to move so you could get inside the apartment.
Some mornings you’d leave for work and open the door and find her sleeping on the landing and have to ask her to move so you could get to the stairs. Some evenings I’d come home and find her bra hanging on the handle of the front door. She also harassed The Ex continuously for our wifi password, and hardly ever spoke to me besides to collect money for our water bill, which I’m convinced was a farce but it was such a small amount of money that I didn’t have the energy to question it.
On one or two occasions you’d open the front door and see her scurrying off into her lair without any clothes on. It was all extremely weird but at the same time became part of living there. As the stories mounted I’d tell my friends and colleagues about her and she became a hot topic of conversation, with people often asking after her as if she was a member of the family.
There are no trash days in Shanghai so you take it out whenever the bin is full and leave it on the side of the pavement. Within 5 minutes it magically disappears because there is always someone permanently stationed on or within a section of a street who is there to clean it. Scratcher began following us whenever we took the trash out and would watch us drop it on the side of the pavement, waiting for us to disappear down the road so she could grab it before the street cleaner could.
The reason for this? She decided to start collecting our used Starbucks cups, so we’d return home later and find all of the empty Ventis from the previous days stacked and displayed on the floor of her space like trinkets.
On some occasions, some of the mess would disappear, but it was only a matter of weeks before it all piled up again. She also smoked from time to time, which made me paranoid about the building burning down. I started lieing awake at night planning my escape route out of the apartment, through one of the windows and down to the ground floor with the help of towels and sheets tied together to form a rope in order to escape a fiery death.
The night terrors and sleep paralysis started around the same time The Ex managed to inexplicably lose his key to the front door, so I started locking the sliding door which separated the bedroom from the rest of the flat, and her.
The theme of these nightmares was reoccurring. She was either standing next to my side of the bed and leaning over me or standing just outside the bedroom and watching me sleep. If you’ve ever suffered from sleep paralysis you’ll know how traumatic it can be. You can’t move or scream, no matter how hard you try. This continued almost every night for months. I became convinced she was coming into the apartment, especially when no one was there for long periods of time when we travelled. I was told to stop being dramatic, paranoid and crazy – they were just dreams.
We decided we wouldn’t be renewing the lease (which we stupidly extended for 6 months after the first year) when she started sitting on a chair either facing the front door or with her back to it for hours. She was becoming like something out of a horror movie, and it got worse and worse.
I couldn’t take it anymore and pleaded with our landlord to do something about her. I mentioned that when we eventually moved out he would struggle to find a tenant, but that didn’t seem to bother him. It was only after I mentioned the smoking and the fire hazard that something was done. She was taken away to a “mental hospital” for an evaluation, and we didn’t know when she’d be back. I hoped I’d never see her again.
The landlord cleaned up Scratcher’s things, and for the first time in over a year you could see the floor and make out what the space actually looked like. It was an apartment, it just didn’t have a front door or any furniture. Things were quiet for over a week, and then one day she returned.
It must have been a few weeks later when we gave early notice on the apartment before the lease was up, only after we’d managed to find a new place. It was much bigger and best of all, no Scratcher. Our landlord managed to find a new tenant, who was also a foreigner, and he took the place for two years.
A few weeks later I was scrolling through WeChat and saw that my old landlord was advertising the old apartment again. I immediately message him and asked what had happened. He sent me a very excitable voice note in English as he’d been going to lessons and it had improved a lot, but I still wasn’t able to understand what he was saying beyond that the man who moved in had left. I asked him not to worry with English and send it to me in Chinese, I’d get one of my colleagues to translate for me.
My colleagues Peidi and Erin were sitting in the office with me at the time, so I asked them to take a listen and let me know what he was trying to tell me. I played it for them and they both looked at one another in horror. My heart immediately dropped as they told me to play it again. At this point Peidi started shrieking and Erin put her fingers in her ears as if traumatised by what she was hearing…
It was around 2am on the new tenant’s first night in our old apartment, and he had woken up because he felt like something was wrong with the bed. It came semi-furnished, so it was the same bed which we had slept on. He got out of bed to investigate why he was feeling so uncomfortable and got on to his knees on the floor to look underneath it. What he found there will haunt me for the rest of my life…
It was Scratcher, lying under the bed staring back at him.1