I was revisiting Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall” the other day, and though I’d always thought of that guy, the one that’s lumbering round his yard screening out his neighbour stone by stone, as a hard-boiled misanthropist who probably lived with his mum well into his forties, I can kind of see his point now, get the gist of his repeated refrain: Good fences make good neighbours.
I thought that once I bought my own place, my lingering aversion to neighbours would disappear, or at least decrease somewhat. I remain, however, unmoved. As much as I desperately want to be that amiable individual who, moments after unpacking their bags, delivers freshly-baked cookies next door, promising to tend to the inhabitants’ garden and ghastly Rottweiler should they ever go on holidays, I have no desire to encourage feelings of mateship. Not with the neighbours on either side of me. Not with the neighbours opposite me, diagonal to me, or literally anywhere else on the street.
I put it down to the fact that my past is littered with a string of bad neighbours, all of whom proved to be unsuitable candidates for friends, let alone casual acquaintances. While the folk on Ramsay street might happily wander through each other’s houses helping themselves to sugar, eggs and (as has been the case in several Neighbours episodes) other people’s husbands, I was content to have as little interaction as possible with these individuals who, through nothing more than a random chain of events, had wound up living next door to me.
Not all of them were bad, per se. The first neighbours I remember were lovely, a young twenty-something couple who moved in when I was in primary school. Smart, sophisticated, and exceedingly hip, they were the kind of people I imagined myself to be a smaller, shorter version of. I also observed, with the eye of a seasoned horticulturist, several favourable changes they had made to the former owner’s backyard. Various shrubs and flowers covered what had previously been a vast expanse of dirt leading from the back door of their house up to our fence.
“Is that something from the Sterculiaceae family, dad?” I said one day, directing his attention towards one of several plants in their garden, all gloriously green despite a sweltering summer. I had just started learning the scientific names of a range of Australian flora, and though most of my knowledge was confined to your usual suspects, Eucalyptus something or other, Acacia this or that, the addition of the Sterculia marked my venture into more exotic territory.
According to some article I’d recently read in a doctor’s surgery waiting room, my brain would only be able to soak up data swiftly, and in large quantities, until the age of 16. I was horrified – how had I not learnt of this earlier? It was inconceivable that my source should be a year-old edition of Woman’s Day and not one of my parents or teachers. This, after all, was crucial information. As far as I saw it, by the time I reached my parent’s age, my brain would resemble less a sponge than it would a crusty old pile of cellulose fibres, incapable of retaining any new material whatsoever. Spurred on by this horrendous image, I devoted myself to learning.
There was no Google back in the 90s, so said knowledge was gleaned from my dad, an avid gardener and floraphile. I would pester him for names and variations while he was mowing the lawn or pruning the fig trees, trees whose purple-veined, frankly terrifying, fruit my sisters and I would later have to collect in plastic bags before they decomposed, turning to jam in the grass. When my dad cut them down years later, we saw not the death of a delicious source of fruit, but the elimination of one of the ickier chores from our weekly to-do list.
I thrived on disseminating my newfound knowledge whenever, and wherever, the opportunity arose. “Oh that,” I’d say to friends, as they pointed to one of any number of plants. “That’s an Acacia Fasciculifera, or what you,” I said, turning my attention to the dimmest-looking member of the group, “might call a wattle.” Wattle was broken into two distinct syllables. Wat-tle. I was unsure that these simple folk, who had not even a rudimentary understanding of plants, let alone Latin, would be able to keep up with me.
If the scientific names ever eluded me, I used the plant’s regular title and attached to it the name of a dinosaur, or a Greek-sounding surname. Rose for example might become Rosus Papadopoulos, the gerbera Gerberatus Diplodochus. They smelt a rat one day when I called a hibiscus a Hibiscus Tyrannosaurus-Rexus and I swiftly lost my status as the smartest kid in Year 7. The baton was picked up by a guy called Simon who knew how to recount the 12 times table in ten seconds flat.
The diagnosis of my hip neighbours’ plant, it turned out, was way off the mark. This plant, unlike any from the Sterculiacea family, sported a different shade of green, and broke off into leafy, ragged fingers. It was, as I would later find out from my parents, Sweet Mary Janeus Illegalatus. I was so taken aback that we were living next door to hardened criminals that I would give my mum strict instructions whenever I left the house. A trip to the letterbox was logged. If I’m not back within the minute, I’d say, taking one last, lingering look at her face, please contact the authorities immediately.
Not long after my horrific discovery, the couple moved. Maida Vale, it turned out, must have been less of a pot hot spot than they had envisaged. This was surprising to me – I had imagined that the local high school alone would have kept them afloat. Hell, some of the pre-schoolers looked like users. In hindsight, though, the average Maida Valean was probably chasing a little more bang for their buck, something that started with “m” and rhymed with “eth.”
Whatever the case, I was sad to see them go. Sure, they were dangerous, but they seemed like genuinely good people. If only, I thought, they’d taken a moment to speak to me, I could have shown them the error of their ways, talked them through a ten-step programme in which they moved from social delinquent, to thriving member of the local community. This is you now, I’d say, pointing to a sketch of two people holding guns and bleeding from various points on their body. And this is you if you follow my advice. They would be effusive with their praise, swearing off drugs for life. I would smile, knowingly, as though I’d seen it all before, as though they were the last in a long line of people whose lives I had pulled from the gutter.
A young family moved in after them. They had a Jack Russell and one insufferable, precocious child, a Shirley Temple lookalike who spoke with a lisp and an American accent she had inherited from daytime television. She was the kind of kid you might see on Oprah, chosen because of some odd, but wholly unremarkable, gift – an unusual birthmark, perhaps, or the ability to name obscure capital cities on request. Benin? my pint-sized neighbour would say, tapping her index finger against her nose and squinting into the camera. Then, after a tension-filled few seconds, she’d jump from the couch, exclaiming: Why, ith Porto-Novo, of courth – when you gonna athk me the hard oneth?!!! The entire studio audience would dissolve into laughter. The only member of the family I could identify with was the dog who, to his credit, was always running away.
That kind of kid, naturally, had no respect for age-related hierarchies, and even though I was at least six years her senior, she insisted on addressing me by my first name, rather than, say, Miss Green, or Ma’am. And she was always there. Always. A stool was installed just by the fence, and if she stood on her tippy toes, it allowed her full scope of the left side of our house. Given her supersonic hearing – she could hear a pin drop at 50 yards – any outdoor venture was suddenly fraught with danger. I wanted the junkies back.
“What are you doing?” she’d say as you dashed out to grab something off the clothesline, whistling merrily through a bus-sized gap in her front teeth. If you were running late in the morning, she might move her chair to the other side of the fence, issuing a cheery admonition to your retreating figure. “Thouldn’t you hurry up?” she’d shout, “you’re going to be late for thcooooool!”
Her parents pulled off the remarkable feat of being even more insufferable than their daughter. The mum was into belly dancing, and while that’s all well and good as a dirty secret one only discloses after too many Bacardi Breezers, I once had the misfortune of witnessing an impromptu demonstration, accompanied by a concomitant dialogue on the virtues of gyrating one’s hips and upper body. “It’s very good for toning,” she said as she writhed around our living room, arms flailing, legs akimbo. “You can really feel the burn.”
While the dad didn’t have similarly questionable hobbies, he had perfected the art of turning any conversation into a legislative debate. Put it this way – the man could politicise a light bulb. Luckily, I was spared his diatribes most of my childhood, but as soon as I graduated high school, I became an unwilling sounding board to some of his more, let’s say, outré, ideas.
When I told him, one year, that I hadn’t placed a vote in the federal election, he shook his head in disbelief. “It’s that kind of attitude,” he said, trailing off, temporarily derailed by the horrifying nature of my crime. “It’s that kind of attitude,” he continued, gazing off into the distance, “that led to the Holocaust.” I struggled to see how my apathy could possibly birth the Fuhrer, let alone the slaughter of six million Jews, but I had no desire to prolong the dialogue. Engaging with a madman, as I have learned, rarely yields fruit.
The people on our other side weren’t much better. Being a rental property (and not a particularly upmarket one at that), it attracted all kinds of undesirable tenants. The term “house proud” would never, even by an immense stretch of the imagination, be ascribed to any of its various, ephemeral inhabitants, each of them lasting only several months before they moved on, presumably to rehab or a maximum-security prison. Grass grew nearly as tall as the fence, and when it was mown, it was stripped back to dirt, so as to prolong the inevitable.
Perhaps its worst tenants, though, were a middle-aged couple who brought with them a fleet of beat up cars, none of them roadworthy. While presumably do-ups, I never saw either of the owners attempting to fix them, and they ended up becoming less a potential means of transportation than hokey installation art, the sort bought by rich collectors intent on diversifying their collection.
Apparently of noble stock, public transport was out of the question for this family, and so my mum became a kind of ersatz Uber driver, shuttling them to doctor’s appointments, soccer training, birthdays. Towards the end, though, they started pushing their luck. Mom officially abandoned her imagined reprisal of Driving Miss Daisy when they rang her up on New Year’s Eve at 3am to say that they needed a ride home. “We, hiccup, need you to give us a ride home, belch. We’re too tanked to drive.” It was the final straw.
Finally, and perhaps most memorably, there was the lady across the road who shared with the ancient Egyptians a near-psychotic devotion to cats. Her entire life, I fathomed, had been devoted to her beloved Himalayan, an animal so ugly Noah would have rejected it passage, and whom she claimed could dial Chicken Treat.
It’s worth repeating. She claimed that her cat could, and did call, Chicken Treat whenever he felt like Chicken. And a treat. That was one liberated feline. What annoyed me most about this woman was that she, and those of her ilk, were personally responsible for the term “cat lady.” I hated dogs, and it pained me that if – mon Dieu – I chose to remain single and childless, I would have to forego owning a cat for the sake of my reputation.
It’s a misconception that continues to irk me, the notion that dog lovers are active, attractive and outgoing, and that, conversely, cat lovers sit at home in a pool of their own urine, knitting countless doilies and growing their own whiskers. Cats don’t smell or bark, they rarely hump your leg, and most crucially, they’re not needy. It’s creepy enough when people are clingy, let alone animals.
I once ended up inside her house – for what reason I can’t quite remember. Perhaps to take over freshly-baked cookies, or retrieve a stray ball. Whatever the case, I was anxious to make the encounter as brief as possible. I would not go the way of my mum, I thought, who had once been cornered in our kitchen for two hours by this woman.
When our cat-loving neighbour finally answered, she was bleary-eyed, agitated, no doubt woken from a mid-afternoon nap. Nonetheless, she invited me through to the kitchen for a drink, on the condition that I not track in any dirt behind me, or speak too loudly. Loud noises, she claimed, upset her delicate senses, and could precipitate a nervous breakdown, or worse. Or worse? I thought. It could get worse than this?
I had seen enough in my brief stay to know that the neighbourhood rumours of her having killed her husband and stashed his body in a spare closet somewhere were probably unfounded. “She may look crazy,” I’d say, after my reconnaissance mission, “but I doubt she’s actually knocked anyone off.” The lesser claim, however – of her being mentally unhinged – was evidenced elsewhere, in her alarming choice of interior decoration, for example.
If she was trying to lose the cat lady moniker, I thought, surveying her collection of porcelain cat figurines – cats dancing, cats playing the piano, cats doing gymnastics – she was going about it all wrong. And every surface of her loungeroom, I noticed, seemed to be covered in plastic – from the hall runner, which extended the length of the loungeroom floor up until the kitchen, through to the armchairs, whose floral print was petrified under a layer of thick, dirt-resilient, film. There was even a plastic cover on the remote. How unclean could hands possibly be? I thought. A bum, your feet – those were dirty parts of your body, but not your frigging hands.
On the way out, crunching my way back across the plastic runner, I stopped to pat her cat, who was lazily splayed on a table near the door. He looked at me, plaintively, his hideous face imploring me to take him with me, somewhere with surfaces he could dig his claws into. Meeeow, he purred, and I knew that he was trying to communicate to me, in the only language he knew, that his owner was batshit crazy. “Good possum,” my neighbour said, bending down and rubbing her nose against his. “You love your mummy ever so much, don’t you?”
Mine, as you can see, was not a past that would inspire me to love my neighbours, regardless of the biblical exhortations. Jesus, I figured, had never lived on our street. Nevertheless, I’ve tried to make more of an effort now that I have my own place. And my neighbours here aren’t that bad, in all honesty. It’s just that I have no desire to start a relationship with someone purely because they’re in close proximity to me. It’s as illogical as dating the postman because I see him every day, or the checkout guy at Coles. Or, for that matter, my psychologist. At least with the psychologist I’d be saving money – with mate’s rates, it might only cost $100 to be told I’m unhinged.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, says Frost. Maybe so, but it sure as hell, ain’t me.