ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Neighbors," by Alf Marks

That's when good Neighbors become good friends

        Neighbors—Australian television series


Larissa over the road has a boyfriend and Damien, her partner, has a girlfriend.  
"They're going to split up," Trudy announces, all calamity.
This little gem sprung on Norm at the kitchen table while relaxing in his pyjamas reading the sports section.
Emerald heat hazes over the grassy expanses of Norm's back lawn.
Well, here's a little surprise to mark the brand new year. He is always the last to know. Mushroom Norm, kept in the dark and fed bullshit. He doesn't think he stands off. But talky colt Trudy is so forward that in comparison he must seem shy and boring.
She keeps up with the neighbors. And if she didn't dish him the gossip, then God didn't make little green apples. But she's not a busybody. Nothing she tells him is done with relish. She has a life.
Norm sees the concern and expectation in Trudy's ice blue eyes framed by her strong, silver cap of hair. She's lifted her shoulders, drawn her breath, about to spew her news. She's got a bladder full again. She wants to talk and there is no denying her.  It's the same when she wants something done. It must be done right away. And retirement hasn't mellowed her purpose. He used to whinge he had his own priorities. Yeah, that made a lot of difference.
Norm scratches his pate above his monks ring, flicks some toast crumbs from his pyjama top, hides a sigh, lays his paper down. Stevie Pointing's record run will have to wait.
Norm focuses. Trudy burns to help. She has strong opinions and high standards.  She has to fight herself, her nature, to be discrete, not to act. It is hard for her but she has become better over the years.
Norm read "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus." Trudy is a bit like a man; she likes to solve. But like a woman, she also likes to relieve her feelings. So she tells him what she would never talk about with the neighbours — that would be gossip.
Being married thirty seven years has taught Norm that half listening brings trouble.  Trudy is big on relationships and how theirs still needs working on. He and Trudy have their dummy spits. At bottom they agree but they are chalk and cheese. They annoy each other over the small things. There have been some mighty blues but nothing to call it quits.

"It's Damien's fault, he's not very nice to her," Trudy starts in, all piteous. Norm thinks of the Elvis song, "Wise men say only fools rush in." He'll wait on the tone of this.
He sneaks a glance out to his pool shining in the heat. He has work to do in the back yard but there's no getting out of this.
He gives in to Trudy's annoying way of telling a story. A piece of the jigsaw puzzle at a time, without the picture on the puzzle box. So he must dig to get it straight. But if he gets it wrong, she jacks up. Thirty seven years has taught him not to backchat. But the young bloke also deserves an ear.
"Why is it always the bloke?" he says. "Who knows what starts a couple down the slippery slope."
"It's his fault, believe me."
"But where are you getting this?"
"Simon"— Norm figures Simon's evidence is as suss as a Pete's Warehouse closing. But he buttons it.
"Larissa told him."
"I thought Simon and Larissa didn't speak."
"Well, it's not so hunky-dory nowadays."
"What's Damien do that's so bad?"
"Well, he's not very good to her."
"Does he abuse her?"
"He doesn't hit her or anything."
That's a relief.  Norm wonders if this age is worse than any other. But he seems only to expect the worst.
He waits.  Trudy can be so itty bitty.
"He's got a great job, but he spends every dime."
"Does he gamble, drink?"
"Well, he does go to the pub."
So, men go to the pub, himself included. Yet he somehow sees the young man half drunk and nasty at the local. 
He waits. This could take its own sweet time or it could all come tumbling out. When Trudy's on her high horse all that old age wisdom stuff has no chance.
Norm sneaks another glance out over the back yard where his bright lawn thrives in this year's rains. The pool shimmers and trembles. The broken images of cycads and ferns waver in the deep end.  The dipladenia blaze in their pots.  Redbacks, brought on by the rains, have staked out under the pot rims. He must brush them out and crush them. They are a danger to his granddaughter who sticks her fingers under those rims.
He is keen to get this job done before it gets too hot. He'll do it as soon as they finish this talk.
Norm's son, Jack, has a pool green with algae. Norm fixes it up, leaves it sparkling, writes down instructions so Jack can keep it that way. Jack reads the instructions and says, "Stuff that."
"What's so fascinating out there Norman?" Trudy butts in. "Norman, are you listening?"
"Always listening love. Go on."
"Well," Trudy sighs, "he spends every cent."
"Where's he work, anyway?" Norm asks, pumping the conversation. Doing what is expected.
"That smelly disposal tip near the bay."
She mentions an incredible salary.  
"Just burns it through his fingers."
The old story. The kid's a predator, rough enough, smart enough, to grab the money, but too dumb to hold on to it.
However, Norm isn't convinced.  Although he's never been inside the couple's home, they don't seem lavish. They have a family SUV like most young couples and her car isn't fancy. He has a shiny motorbike.
There's no proof he gives the beer and poker machines a nudge. But even if he does what business is it of his? He's got redbacks to kill.
"He should be putting that money away for the house," she says.
"I thought his father owns the house?"  
"He does, but he couldn't afford the payments."
"Then who's making the payments?"
"I don't know," she answers, hoping that someone is footing the bill.
Norm is unsure what this means. Will the bank foreclose? Will they sell the house and go their own ways?
Presented by Trudy, the couple's finances are a fouled up fishing line. 
He waits on the next piece of the puzzle. But instead Trudy winds down the kitchen blind, slips out the screen door, and pulls the shade cloth over the porch. It's  going to be a scorcher.
Conversation over? If he had a zac for the times she's deserted him mid-sentence he'd be a rich man.
Trudy heads for the pool, takes the pool net and, like one of those gondola blokes in Venice, begins scooping up some late purple flowers from the Jacaranda tree.
Norm mulls over Simon's breakup story. Simon who lives in the small house opposite.  Simon teamed up with the new neighbors but then the petty spat.
Norm knows Simon is just a gentle giant who is sometimes difficult.  Unmarried Simon is no oil painting. He lives with and looks after his handicapped sister. His parents, good neighbors to Trudy and himself, passed away some years ago. Simon worked as a concreter for the Council until privatisation pushed him into a retirement he didn't want.
He is the neighborhood handyman mowing, pruning, fixing taps. He goes about in sartorial splendour: boots and putties, a singlet, and tattered shorts, doing everybody's odd jobs for token pay.
"He needs these jobs, it keeps him occupied," Trudy is always saying.
Norm also knows Simon is socially lacking. Easy to talk to outside, he won't come into your house or sit on your veranda. At Christmas he gives the flick the  neighbourhood parties. He has his own few, humble friends.  As with his parents, though city bound, there is something of the farm left in Simon.
That is why it was a pleasure to Trudy when the new neighbors showed rural leanings.  Simon went out with them to the broken edge of town to feed the horses. They started becoming mates.
"Isn't it great that they have found this outlet," Trudy has often enthused.
Norm regards the house, occupied by the young couple, as a missing part of the neighborhood. Families have come and gone over the years and he has never known them. And neither has Trudy. Unusual for someone who knows every man, woman, child, dog, cat, and stoat in the vicinity. Trudy, like most females, just seems to know these things. She isn't a stickybeak. It's just natural.
"There's something unknown about that house over the road," she has said. "It's a big city thing.  I don't know if it's a curse or a blessing."
Whichever, a string of occupants, had not chosen to engage with their neighbors.  Surrounded by thick conifers, and a dull, olive hedge, the property  somehow estranged new people. Norm saw only the dusky screening trees. Sometimes, raucous cockies would settle in those trees crushing the pine nuts in their powerful beaks, their lemon crests flaring, their big white bodies taxing the protecting branches. He'd glimpsed, in the hidden yard, only fragments of human activity.  Until the young couple arrived.
"New people at twenty three," Trudy had said.
'How do you know?" Norm had asked.
"Different cars, and a woman and a kid I haven't seen before."
Trudy hadn't extended the welcome mat. Age had made her more cautious, less concerned with the courtesies. People just didn't do that anymore. But the young, blonde, thinly energetic woman would open out to them.
Norm watched the young couple.  The almost pretty young woman busy in her front yard.  Flashes of her through pruned gaps in the conifers, a corn haired child on his tricycle; scooters lying about. The gaps in the conifers grew bigger and so did the conversations with the neightbors.  One day they woke up to a chainsaw. The conifers ending in an angry shower of woodchips. Their property. Their right.
She jollied up the gloomy garden with a country fence. An old farm gate sealed the front yard from the road.  She planted in place of the conifers a baby Willow, which surprised Norm.  After freeing up the yard, she was going to close it down again.  The dusky hedge was replaced by a Colorbond fence.
"C'est la vie," said Trudy, — we live in a democracy.
These changes were her projects. Damien didn't feature.  He was a dark presence in the background, a well-moulded young man with trailing hair and an aggressive manner.  Norm's impressions were based on brief glances at thirty yards. A figure astride a flashy motorbike that burbled loudly round the block. There goes the neighbourhood, Norm had chuckled to himself.   But it dawned on him that men didn't support each other like women did.  He had never spoken to the young bloke.
The opened yard brought Norm new sightings of the house. Previously he'd seen only a few mossy roof tiles.  Now, on a brick chimney, a fitting like a priest's collar, holding winking evening lights.
"Christmas comes but once all year," he'd said to Trudy as they had walked past the house. She'd dug him in the ribs in case the new neighbors overheard.
Norm saw a dull, green house front, a matching fleck of green on the old garage. A half glimpse of carport with battened cloth sides housing the SUV. Tree ferns blocked the view to bedrooms.  He was surprised by the elegant palms in the back yard. He'd never thought about the happiness of the beings inside.
There appeared, in the front, a rustic, ornamental windmill, a country post box, an old wagon wheel.  Then a sad Shetland Pony. Willy, an arthritic refugee from the glue factory. Willy of the best days of friendship between the neighbors and Simon.  The threesome going out to acreage on the broken edge of the city to care for Willy and his shattered orphans and cousins.
Norm had taken his small granddaughter to see Willy.  She had stared at the dull, suffering eyes behind the shaggy mane, his swollen legs. His stillness, his trembling effort to move. Despite his presenting Willy to the girl in the words of loving childhood, she had said "Willy is sorry, grandpa." He could only agree.
Then as they had crossed back over the road.
"Willy is a bit like you grandpa."
"He is!"
"He's an old crock."
However, the bloated bag that was Willy the Crock's tummy still functioned.  Larissa sold these proceedings at two dollars a bag.  Norm bought some bags, spread the pats on his hibiscus bushes.
Like his hibiscus plants, the friendship between Simon and the couple flourished. Norm watched them drive off to the broken edge of town, picturing the degraded farm fields, the blighted houses of the outer rim.  Out there dazzling jets growled over the run down barns and the broken down beasts housed in them. There they fed Willy and other four-legged, tag-rag creatures cast aside by the technological age.
Norm realised that these neighbors were chasing their uprooted country pasts. Still struggling with that wrench.
One day he was surprised by a bulky, new, twin cab ute, like an alien flying saucer, nesting on the nature strip opposite. He'd called Trudy.
"Get a load of this," he'd said widening his eyes.
She'd taken a hoarse inward breath. Sounds frothed from her lips as if she was speaking in tongues. Norm thought Trudy sometimes over-reacted. After all the friendship was going great guns. So Simon had invested in a new pickup which, like Simon himself, was a big fella.  Two and a half sturdy tons to ferry man and beast, food and supplies, to the horses on "the farm." 
But Trudy shrewdly worried over the cost of the weighty vehicle for a man on Simon's limited income. She said nothing.  None of her business: she couldn't openly bring up the matter with Simon. 

Then the spat.

"I knew, I knew it, I knew it," Trudy had cried slapping her thigh.  But a spat over what? Nobody could get to the bottom of it. Except it was petty.  At first the parties weren't talking, the weeks passed.  Then they arrived, as far as Norm could see, at some grudging compromise.  Trudy made veiled comments on the foolish purchase.  Speculated on the split. Had the young couple taken advantage of Simon's good nature?   On the other hand, given Simon's temperament, it wouldn't have taken much. An offhand comment, something taken for granted. Simon, like the horses, was apt to be sensitive.

A stand-off.

Then news that Willy had joined the great roundup in the sky. Norm had  tried not to think of it. What the hell!  Glues nowadays are epoxy resins. But without Willy, their joint concern, would this end the already dicey relationship.  Norm was pleasantly surprised to see the big machine still about its duties. They had other  horses to look after.  He puzzled over the exact nature of the relationship.


*   *   *

Norm clears the dishes, and dresses in his scungy garden clothes, ready to  go after those redbacks. But instead he finds himself at the lounge window oddly disturbed, wanting a glance at the warring parties across the road. He is surprised to see Trudy on the front lawn raking the leaves that fall nonstop from the massive gums on the footpath. With her high energy, having scooped the pool, she is on to his task, making him feel guilty. The leaf litter reminds him of the dirty spring snow when he lived overseas. Long daggers like snowflakes rioting over his lawn, the leaf blades tempered to flat leather.  That overseas posting a highlight of his career. Although the high point wasn't so high, the venture a bust.  Norm views his career in unflattering terms. For his type he has coined the term flatliners.

Beyond Trudy the blank house fronts challenge Norm. He watches his wife vigorously raking the leaves into piles. She walks head high, proud, with that strong, silver cap of hair. She'd gone grey early but didn't bother about dyeing the grey out.   Healthy and glowing; never looking faded or old, the silver suited her, setting off her piercing, blue eyes with their loving twinkle.  She is one of those smallish women whom you never think of as small.  She is a presence, she projects.  The life in her is big. Even asleep she doesn't seem small because he knows her consciousness beneath.  Lying together spooning, aware of her quiet breathing, his hand cupping her little breast, brings him his only reminder that she is small.
Aah, Trudy. Norm knows how lucky he is to have a Trudy, children who ignore his advice, grandchildren who are disrespectful. Once, after a bickering session with Trudy, he'd said they were like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She  was not amused. She takes big and small things seriously. Norm clammed up over Zorba's remarks in Zorba the Greek. The Alan Bates character asks Anthony Quinn,
"Are you married, Zorba?"
"Am I not a man? And is a man not a fool? Wife, children, the whole catastrophe," Zorba answers. A naughty little jig courses through Norm's head. They can't put you in jail for what you're thinkin'.

Trudy arrests his smile which she unfairly interprets as mocking.  You can't get much past Trudy. Now she throws a clump of leaves, points with her rake, the long blades spinning about her dainty form like a snowstorm in a paperweight. He knows what she's thinking. I've raked these piles, lazy.  Now put them in the bin. She knows how to get his goat, laughs as he drums the window in fake anger. Spats over tasks have downgraded to mock battles. She knows the massive gums moult in the heat, that he's raked the lawn several times since New Year, that to keep the lawn leaf free is impossible. The January heat rolls on and so does the shedding. But she doesn't mind a little teasing. Shortly, even she will have to give up. It's just too hot. She stops, wipes her brow, and disappears into the shade of the carport.


*      *      *

The shut faces of the neighbors' houses continue to make Norm uneasy. An incident, months back, has become important.
Late one night, they came home to a party over the road. The noise from the stereo was unholy. Inside, the windows, already shut, were vibrating. They'd smiled sheepishly. They hadn't wanted to be party poopers, spoil neighborly relations. They'd lain in bed awake, washed over by storms of sound. Out of an unexpected silence they'd heard Damien's festering roar:


"Charming," cried Trudy, 'just charming," fighting down her nature, her  urge to smack the idiot in the chops. Bring him to his senses.   Norm was alright on the all-night party but the part with the neighbors was a trifle bacchanalian for his advanced years.
Nevertheless, a male intuition that Norm didn't know he owned had kicked in. The male recognising the male call of distress. Trouble brewing between the young couple. Perhaps he wasn't always the last to know.
But what could he have done?  Barged in the next day with friendly advice? That old fart Norm who never says boo suddenly popping up. But he can't help a tremor of regret. He'd buried what he'd known. And today with Trudy's news its meaning had hit home.

The tidal sets of sound had continued.  Norm remembered stalling over crossing the road and doing his duty as a man and a citizen.  He'd felt a rush of anger and hopelessness over these neighbors' indifference. Going over, he'd reasoned, would only have led to bad blood, perhaps the throwing of punches. The brutal nature of big cities had nestled in his gut. Better to cut them some slack. If it went on too long he'd have to summon his courage and do something. Resigned to his position, he'd realized, as his lids had grown heavy, that he would surely sleep  — even through that assault of sound.

He'd awoken to the magpies chortling in the swaying gums.

Trudy's story unfolded.  At two o'clock she had thrown on her gown and slippers and gone over.  She did not confront anyone.  She simply walked into the party, still in swing in the front yard, and stood next to the speakers.  She is determined and resourceful, his Trudy.  Almost immediately Damien, looking bold and defiant, had come out from his living room.  She had not said anything.  He'd come up to her and smiled and said,
"Too loud, huh!"  To which she had smiled and replied.
"Just a little."
"I'll turn it down,"
"I would appreciate that."
She had come back home to bed.  The noise had continued.  Ah, well, she had done what she could. Eventually she had also fallen into the sound swell and slept.

Days later, she had received a bright apology from Larissa. At three in the morning, supposedly off their own bat, the cops had arrived. But rather than turning the music down, the revellers had pulled the plug and all tripped off to bed.

"So considerate," he'd remarked to Trudy.  "So good of them."  But even now he bubbles with anger. He still can't believe it went on that long. He curses his own timidness, the cowardly neighborhood. Everyone's spooked, too many horror stories on T.V. People aren't straight with each other any more.

But the event proved a one off.  The wayward neighbors settled down to the life of the suburb. In time the incident didn't look so bad. So what — the kids had let off a bit of steam.


*          *          *

Trudy, surprised to find him still in the lounge, sits on the couch opposite. "What are thinking love?" she asks. "I thought you were going to work on the back garden."

He doesn't want to revive the subject but she reads his thoughts.

"It's a shame, it's a jungle out there." she bursts out. She hasn't got it off her chest either. "His parents don't want him to marry her," she says
Trudy's jigsaw puzzle.  This key piece of the puzzle might have been useful from the start.
Their talk ranges on. Maybe his parents saw something nasty in her. Although she seems to Norm as sweet a girl as you can imagine. Maybe it's snobbery. His parents are more moneyed, more genteel. It sounds like old-fashioned choosing sides to him.  Perhaps the young man is under his parents' thumb, worried they'll cut off his inheritance if he keeps with her.

But Trudy dismisses all this.

"Oh, look," she says, "they're splitting up, she's sick of him. He's given her a child but he won't marry her." A final judging statement.
"I thought it was because they were cheating on each other," he says.
"I wouldn't believe the half of it," she answers rising decisively, distancing herself from the whole matter, her need to tell satisfied.
But he still has a loose end to tie up.
"What's the position with Simon now?" he asks "What exactly does not so hunky-dory mean?"
"Simon still feeds the horses but she doesn't go. I thought you were going to work in the back garden," she barbs disappearing down the passage.
"I am," he calls, a little miffed that she has nagged.

But he lingers, distilling his thoughts, searching for a settlement. And turning he sees, as if on cue, the three players in their front yards.   
Norm feels guilty spying, a nosey parker, but behind the glass he has a sense of separation, the scene outside unfolding like a movie.  Simon working his front yard, the young couple together, a rare sighting, attending to theirs.
Simon strolls down the side, closes the side gate, disappears. Norm dwells on this cooling of friendship for the big man, the narrowing of his already limited horizons. But he is gone.

Only the couple remain in their quality of being in a movie. Behind them  the chimney with its yellow collar, the little added willow, green at its core, yellow at its tips.  The toy windmill stopped in the windless heat.

Norm dwells again on the opportunity missed, the warning not heeded. Perhaps he should have gone over in the quiet of day. Interfered, tried to help. But what could he have offered them then and now? He has no special wisdom or advice. Why should they listen to an old fool like him? He'd had no distinguished career. He'd had no particular talent, for kicking a ball or painting a portrait or soaring in a song. Or at anything else.  The best he could offer them is that he'd stuck to it. He'd looked after wife and family and house. Mostly. Not always even to the best of his ability. An imperfect marriage wrapped in an imperfect life. But what are the alternatives?

Still, even now he wants to go over to the young couple, lay a friendly arm on a shoulder and say he's been married thirty seven years and it ain't no bed of roses.  They still have their flare ups, they still annoy each other, and they are still working at compromises. He wants to tell them that he saw an old black and white movie the other night and the one guy said to the other. "Listen fella, no matter who you marry, you wake up married to somebody different." Tell them you make your adjustments to that new person and they make their adjustments to you. You don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

He wants to help but there is nothing he can do. In a village, somewhere, at another time, or as part of a tribe, he might have had a say. Elder Norm, Councillor Norm, what's your advice for this couples plight?

But that is not the state of play in a big city in the twenty first century.
In the end it is none of his business. He can only wait in confusion for the real estate sign to go up or not go up. He can't worry over every lost beast, every fallen sparrow, every tumbling leaf, every melted snowflake.  These are, after all, only neighbors.  And he has piles of leaves, Trudy's priority, to put in the bin, and then he has redbacks to kill.  


Here is the list of Australianisms:

suss: suspicious. Australian propensity for shortening words
zac: a sixpence in old sterling currency of pounds shillings and pence before Australia switched to dollars and cents. Not much in use nowadays but Norm's generation would  use the term
ute: pickup truck
whinge: whine, grizzle
spit the dummy: to lose it
jack up: get your back up (may not be exclusive)
bloke: guy
stuff that: to hell with that
disposal tip: garbage dump
redback: poisonous spider
give it the flick: reject something, not bother, skip it
old crock: old broken down entity, both British and Australian
bin: trash can
scungy: scruffy  .

Born in South Africa, Alf Marks spent his early childhood in that country before moving with his parents to Zimbabwe, (then Rhodesia) where he grew up. After emigrating, he earned a degree in Journalism in Canada and an M.A. in Education in the USA. His journey subsequently took him to Australia where he has lived for over thirty years. He has worked as a reporter, a teacher, and an old wares and antiques dealer.
His African short stories have been published in various magazines in Australia and South Africa. His Australian themed stories have been published in journals in Australia and the USA. His story Gonnarong appeared in Offcourse #62.

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