Monday, August 11, 2014

Neighbours


Our neighbours, who live across the street, fight a lot. Quite loudly, and more often than not these arguments take place in the early hours of the morning and peak with one of them slamming a car door and driving off quickly and noisily. I could be wrong, but I think alcohol plays a part in things. Their house has a stone gargoyle on the porch along with a 'Beware of the dog' sign, and indeed one can usually hear what sounds like a large dog barking from within its shadowy confines. I was telling this to a friend of mine who said it sounded like a classic drug dealing house. He said, conspiratorially, "Just think about it right? Potential customers are told to look for the house with the gargoyle on the front porch and the large dog is there to make sure everyone behaves themselves and to keep a look out for the police."

A few years back, I ordered one of those cots that turns into a cot bed for my son. We were on our way out, when I noticed a very large, very heavy box on their porch which read: 'Three in one cot/cotbed'. I looked at my husband and said, "Oh dear god, either those crazy people have a baby, or that's our cot bed. Irrespective, it's bad news." The thought of a baby in a house full of fighting was obviously the worse of the two potential evils, and if it was our cot bed, I didn't see it making its way to us. They just didn't strike me as the kind of people that would knock on our door and say: "Hey neighbour, we got your delivery by mistake. Here it is, along with some brownies we made you. Welcome to the neighbourhood." Although if my friend is correct about them dealing, those may have been some interesting brownies. But I digress. So my husband put on the breaks, walked onto their porch, and checked the address label. And sure enough it was our cot. Good news for the baby that wasn't, bad news for us.

My husband jumped back as their dog barked and popped his furry head between the broken blinds glaring menacingly at him. But being the decent chap he is, my husband rang the doorbell to inform the couple that it was our parcel and he would be taking it back. Mercifully they were not home, and he single handedly dragged the extremely heavy and cumbersome item across the street and to our house while I waited in the car with the children who were strapped in. Later, upon unpacking it, we saw the warning label which said the item required at least four men to move it for health and safety reasons. 

For the remainder of the holiday each time a delivery was delayed, we'd joke that our warring neighbours were now enjoying watching TV in the evenings with my son's dinosaur lamp lighting their lounge, or that their psychopathic dog was using our daughter's pink bedroom rug as its bed.

One day I actually saw one of our neighbours (up until this point we'd only heard them: a man, a woman (aka 'you fucking bitch') and their dog. In the cold light of day, as opposed to the early hours when I lay awake at night somewhat terrified listening to their shouting and the sounds of car doors slamming, the man didn't look so threatening. And what was really surprising is just how young he was. I waved and said hello, and he waved back from his vantage point under the tree where he sat smoking a cigarette.

This year we have not heard a single fight. I realise this is tempting fate, but I do wonder if perhaps they have split up. The car is the same, the dog is the same, so one of them still lives there but perhaps they are in a healthier relationship these days, or maybe they entered into couples therapy? One can hope.

Our other neighbours are the congregation of the Triune Baptist church across the street from us, which dates back to 1840 when this was still a whaling town. We've been told there is a pew and secret hiding place in the front of the church where slaves, liberated by the whalers, would hide when there was a raid. One day the ladies of the church were having a yard sale and my daughter and I wondered over and introduced ourselves and were invited by Mrs Jackson, the Reverend Michael Jackson's wife, to look inside the church and to attend a Sunday service which looks to be very musical and festive. 

The people behind us never fail to have company over. I don't think they have children, and almost every evening they appear to get home from work and have drinks around the pool with their friends. It reminds me of years ago when I had just left university and I visited a good friend of mine who lived in Cape Town. My friend and the people she shared a house with didn't wait for weekends to socialise, and almost every evening involved drinks and a barbecue or a picnic on the beach. Funny how for some reason these things stop and we live our lives in a gloomy regimented weekly existence longing for each weekend as though our very salvation depended on it. Why can't every day be fun and relaxed? Oh yes, that's right, we have kids and we have serious jobs. And that means preparing meals, helping with homework, bath time, story time, and collapsing into bed by 11pm after we have checked our email for the umpteenth time, if we are lucky. I know for certain my children would love it if we forget about the schedule and had a more relaxed weekday existence, but in their case this would involve a ton of TV and all meals consumed in front of the TV with not much in the way of vegetables or homework.

Growing up all the kids on my street used to play in the street. Tennis, football, imaginative games, and games with our toys on the pavements. Very few cars came down, usually only drivers that lived there, and then one of the kids would call out: 'Car!' and this would be acknowledged by the others 'Car!', 'Car!' 'Car!' we'd call to each other in turn, and everyone would step onto the pavement while the car slowly moved past. It was a motley crew of kids of various ages and dispositions, but somehow we all sort of hung out together. No one was ever run over, no one was ever kidnapped, approached or messed with. At least not in the 21 years that I lived here, and not to the knowledge of my family. At five in the evening our various mothers in curlers or aprons would come out of the front door and call their respective children in for dinners and baths. 

As kids we'd always be at each other's houses, or hopping over fences and walls to get in and out of each other's yards. Balls were thrown over and sometimes returned. Cups of sugar were borrowed, flowers were stolen from our garden (my mother kept a beautiful garden), and there was the requisite gossiping and the occasional short-lived spat. But I was very fortunate to grow up with neighbours in the true sense of the word and the ready-made friends this allowed me. If I forgot my key, I knew I could go to Aunty Dawn (who suffered from a lot of headaches) and she'd give me something to eat and invite me to wait in her cool dark house and play with her Siamese cat Ming while I waited for my mother to get home. My good friend Christie lived next door and had the best comic collection ever that she generously allowed me to read. And along with my friend Kim and her sister over the street, we spent a lot of time swimming at each other's houses. And my best friend in the whole world Caroline, who I met on my first day at school aged five and am still friends with, lived just a street up. And Caroline's home was my second home.

This was a street we rode our bikes on, and then later, learnt to drive on, in my case once with my mother and once with my father who is gone so many years now. Once was enough for them by the way - they decided to leave teaching me how to drive to the professionals. Then as my friends got older and got their licences, they'd pick me up and drive me home.  Ours was a street I had walked down so many times tired and hungry after school with a ton of school books on my back. A street I had kissed on, been sick on (too many forbidded teenage drinks). A street I had met my friends on in the middle of the night (dressed in black and armed with spray paint) to play war games in the veld at the end of our street. 

Two years ago while I was visiting South Africa, my mother and sisters and I took a drive past to see the old house. I believe it was Douglas Coupland who wrote that the house we grow up in is a kind of hard drive and we return to it in dreams when we need a kind of reset mode to ground us. I lived in our house on Uys Krige street for the first twenty one years of my life and often dream of it. And I can still mentally walk through it and describe in detail what it looked like and how it was decorated even though I haven't seen it in 18 years.

As we approached our old home, I was genuinely surprised and if I am honest, a bit pissed, to see that there was a security station and a security guard we had to report to and state our business to before he'd let us through to actually enter our street.  Unfortunately these kinds of private road situations have been springing up in Johannesburg over the past few years because of rising crime and car jackings. 


The trees we climbed as children on the pavements are now very grand and established looking and most of the houses have tall walls surrounding them - the front doors not quite so invitingly accessible any more. And a lot of our old neighbours have moved on or have passed away. We couldn't quite see our house from the street because it has a wall, but then it always did, and didn't feel comfortable ringing the door and asking to look around given it was a Sunday afternoon. But it felt different, everything felt different, alien somehow. And along with the bored-looking security guard making us feel like strangers who didn't belong on what was always (in my mind at least) our street, I realised with great sadness this wasn't home any more and realistically probably hadn't been for quite some time.

I suppose it was unfair of me to expect everything to stay the way it was and for things to effectively freeze in time when I had moved on. And perhaps the alien otherness I experienced was not just our street that had changed, but a reflection of the changes that I myself had experienced through early adulthood when I left, to middle age when I returned. But wanting things to stay the same is the selfish nature of nostalgia I suppose, and I am always somewhat envious of friends who talk about 'going home.' I ask: "How long have your parents had the house? Did you grow up there? Did your parents keep your room the same? Are the neighbours still the same? Oh, man, you're soooo lucky."

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