Close Neighbours: a short story

This short-story first appeared in Takahe 98, released in April 2020:

It’s impossible anything being said could be that funny. Like bellowing monkeys at the zoo, the neighbours laugh to be heard laughing; they guffaw, and roar, and you know in your heart they are animals. They start around lunchtime and go long into the night and you (you! lover of sunshine and warmth) have come to long for a thick rain to drive them, like a cowboy with a whip, inside.

The last time the grandchildren were here the neighbours went at it till 2 A.M. The children seemed unaffected when a hoot of laughter caused the whole house to convulse and you’d risen to check on them. The children were still softly snoring in their fluffy one-piece plastic (“it’s polar-fleece mum!”) sleepwear your daughter has them in. It made them overheat and they had thrown off the hand-crocheted blankets and quilts made of squares of their old baby clothes. You could see the orange warning label like a flame licking at your grandson’s neck. You gently tucked it in, extinguishing it from sight.

In the morning you encouraged the children to go outside and yell and holler at the fence line. You made a target of the upside-down bucket on the neighbours’ garage roof – the one they climb out the window to sit and smoke on. All three of you whooped and threw over half-rotten lemons to smash against their walls. When you saw a curtain twitch you all giggled and ran, crouched (much easier for the children), back inside. The children loved it.

Your daughter was furious.

“What possessed you Mum?” she said when the children told her. “I work so hard, so hard, trying to teach them how to behave and you have them throwing rotten fruit over the fence!”

“Wendy, there was a time when people knew how to behave; they wouldn’t even mow their lawn on a Sunday out of respect for their neighbours. The animals in that house deserve a rotten lemon to the eye,” you replied.

“Mum, do you even know those neighbours? What if they are violent?” she said, the last word in a half whisper.

“What toss,” you replied. “they are clearly a university flat full of foolish, indulged children.”

“Whatever makes you say that?” she said.

“The holidays,” you replied.

Once you’d put down the phone you added, “and I bet they sleep in flammable plastic one-piece pyjamas.”

It was a while before your grandchildren could come and stay again. The next time you played it safe and went for a walk in the park. Your grandchildren found fallen pinecones and didn’t know what they were. You let them collect as many as they could carry, your granddaughter using the skirt of her dress as a bowl.  You talked about painting them gold for Christmas.

You knew what pinecones were at their age: good kindling. Starting a fire (“a good strong fire mind, and one which won’t waste fuel,” your mother used to say) had been your job when you were young. You had to wake early in winter and begin a fire your mother could keep burning throughout the day. Keeping the house fires burning was more than just a saying back then. You would start with tight twists of used paper, building on a towering pile of pinecones and watch the smoke swirl. When your cheeks burned you would add a log and carefully place a chair in front of the warmest spot. You didn’t mind this job because it meant you were awake and waiting in solitude for that glowing hour when the sun began to rise and your father would come home.

“All the milk delivered?” you’d ask.

“Every glass,” he’d reply.

“I hope it doesn’t freeze before Ms. Jones bothers to wake up and get it,” you’d say in deep seriousness.

He would grin at that. And he’d scoop you off the chair, plonking you back down on his knee so you could warm up together.

It was only a hunch that the neighbouring house was a university flat. After the lemon incident you needed to find out. You had caught the bus into town and visited the administration office to ask for a university calendar.

“Of course you can have one,” said the round girl at the ASK ME, I CAN HELP! desk. 

“You do know the government doesn’t offer student loans to people over 65 now? So you will have to pay full fees,” interrupted the middle-aged man beside her. 

“Yes. Thank you,” you said tersely, as the girl looked down at the desk in shame. It wasn’t her fault of course; it was that bloody National government. They thought your brain was all used up, no ideas left to flame through it. They invested instead in those fools next door who probably got some bonus for doing a voodoo subject like computer science.

You took the calendar home and began tracking the days and nights they sat on the other side of your fence, throwing cackles into the wind as if they got points for hilarity. It became clear – they had classes Tuesday to Thursday only and holidays – well, they were just a nightmare for you. 

When the first semester ended and the calendar pointed to six weeks of holidays (six weeks!) your spirits flagged. You never were that positive in winter anyway. The days were cold, the nights bright, the man on the radio kept talking about what a dry winter it was, and this plan came clearly to you at 4 A.M. one morning (4 A.M.!) when they still hadn’t stopped. It really was your only option.

After your father died your mother’s brother moved in to help cover the bills. He was a gambler. A cheat. He hit your mother. Once you saw him pick up your brother and throw him across the room where he landed half in the ashes of the cold fireplace. You wouldn’t call him your uncle. He was mean, but the only way your mother could respectably have another man in the house. You’d only remembered lately how he had also kept you awake at night. His friends would come around and sit in the yard playing cards. Inevitably someone would lose and in anger turn over the table. The crashing collision of wood and glass, tables and chairs, like a savage storm in the night.

You took down the Christmas decorations in their boxes, which at your age is a job that takes all day to recover from. Usually you ask your son-in-law to do it during one of their visits in November. Last year he asked you if he could do it for you before you’d even asked, and you remembered again how glad you were she’d found him. Your daughter herself of course had no idea what good luck it required to find a kind man (“She has nothing to compare him to,” your sister used to say). But this year you dragged a chair over and pulled the decorations down yourself. You found the pinecone wreath and the ones painted gold but had a moment of doubt when you reached the new ones. You remembered you’d promised the grandchildren you would paint them together.

You pushed the boxes into the laundry and kept the door shut for the rest of the day but rose to count them at 3 A.M. The neighbours were booing and hooting in equal measure, at what you couldn’t imagine. You had seventeen brittle cones.

Your mother’s brother had left after losing one-too-many bets. Occasionally he would write and ask for money or to move back in. The last few letters were simply full of rage. You were home first each day and, on seeing his handwriting, would intercept the envelopes. You would relight the end of one of your mother’s half cigarettes (she liked to draw out little pleasures) and burn her brother’s letters, dropping the ash into the fireplace. No one ever noticed the extra match in the ashtray; the cigarette cold by the time your mother rested beside it. You learnt early – there are many ways to start a fire. Many ways to burn the evidence.

The next evening the neighbours are at it again, so you sit and dip the tips of the pinecones in cooking wine until they glow and glisten a deep wet ruby. When all goes quiet you set the oven timer for forty minutes to let their sleep really deepen. You use this time to tie three emergency kitchen candles together and light their fresh white wicks. 

You take their strong flame and the box of pinecones outside. You aim for the bucket on the neighbours’ roof. Most clatter down to the dry gutters. You laugh. The fire roars.