Good Neighbours

There’s a massage table in the backyard, next door. It’s white and narrow and the headrest is folded up so when I walk past and catch a glimpse of it through the window it looks like a hospital bed, right there in the middle of the grass, ready for a patient. Scattered around it sit a three-storey chipboard dollhouse, a kids bike with only one wheel, and an Ikea coffee table, once grey and now darker grey, with the laminate peeling off and only three legs. Overhead, the grey hills hoist, one abandoned towel — a pale pink privacy curtain for the one-bed al fresco ward.

I don’t think anybody lives there any more. A few weeks ago I saw a woman walking out the gate with a suitcase and a black garbage bag. She left on foot, rolling the suitcase behind her down the street, it’s wheels bumping over the cracks in the footpath, breaking the backs of every mother in Newcastle. On the verge someone had abandoned an infant car seat and a stroller with the seat bent, both speckled with black mildew.

When they first moved in they had dogs. Two red heelers. They barked all night. There’s no fence between their yard and our house so they’d run under the weatherboards, under our floor, out the other side and onto our driveway, and the street. Sometimes they’d get stuck under the house and we’d hear them wailing and barking and thumping at the floorboards.

Two red heelers turned into six, four fat little puppies yipping and crying. Once I was on my way out and two fat little puppies plopped onto the driveway from under the front verandah, two fat little bodies on eight legs that didn’t quite work right yet, four eyes that weren’t quite open all the way. We carried them home. As it got hotter, the stink of shit nobody cleaned up got stronger, and the grass nobody mowed got taller until it reached the window sill. On forty-degree summer days I’d look out the window and the six dogs would be lying under the frangipani tree, a thin slick of water left in their bowl. Four puppies became three, then two, then just the two big dogs left. And then the big dogs were gone too.

Someone picked up the shit and mowed the lawn and the kids hung a tyre from the tree with rope and they’d take turns sitting in it and being turned around and around and around until the rope was impossibly twisted, and then they’d let go and spin and spin and spin and sometimes they’d kick the side of our house on their way round, and F would stand inside on the window sill, watching, banging his palms on the glass and squealing, delighted by the game.

One of the girls would ride around the block on a rusty two-wheeled scooter, feet bare and brown. Once she knocked on our door and when I answered she asked if we had any lollies. She wasn’t dressed up, but it wasn’t Halloween, it was just Tuesday afternoon and she wanted some lollies. Once she let J ride her scooter and he tried but he fell over because he’s used to the extra wheel and he grazed his palm on the concrete and when I went toward them to help him up she looked terrified, her big green eyes wide and skittish.

There were lots of kids and lots of adults, more than the house looked big enough to hold. Even when the dogs stopped barking they were loud and boisterous and they took up a lot of space, and then they weren’t and they didn’t, and the quiet snuck up on me so slowly I can’t even tell you how long they’ve been gone.

Someone has taken down the tyre but left the rope, its frayed end hanging loose over the grass. The other day someone came through and mowed the lawn, mowed around the massage table that at a quick glance looks like a hospital bed and the dollhouse and the kids bike and the grey Ikea coffee table with its missing leg. The towel is still there. It was pink but now it’s grey too and crusty and hard from the sun and the rain.

Every now and then the towel picks up the wind and it spins around on the hills hoist like a kid on a tyre swing, and when the movement catches my eye through the window I wonder for a second if we’re getting new neighbours, and if I should take around a cake.

Not that I ever would, but maybe I should.

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