Thursday, September 01, 2005

Everybody Needs Good Neighbours

I just took out my garbage and noticed that some neighbours are in the process of moving out. I’m ambivalent about the departure of these neighbours. It isn’t that I’ll miss them, but because it raises the question of who will take their place. It’s a matter of ‘better the devil you know’...

About four months ago, I was checking my mail when I looked up to see a student from the advanced media studies subject I was teaching crossing the road towards me. [I’ll call him ‘Charles’ because he shares his surname with the dead beat poet that inspired Andrew McGahan to write Praise.] Charles and I looked at each other curiously, smiled and said hello, before he proceeded to run up the access driveway adjacent to the block where my flat is. The driveway is used by the occupants of three houses, which, as neighbourhood gossip has it, are owned by a consortium of medical doctors, who also own the next house in a row that is sandwiched between a strip of nightclubs and bars and a sports stadium. The next week before the seminar, Charles asked me if I lived near him. I said, ‘Do you live in one of the houses that front C_____ Street’? He answered in the affirmative and asked how long I’d lived there, because he’d thought my face had looked familiar from about a year ago. I said I’d lived there at least six years, while inside I blushed profusely, recalling exactly what had happened a year ago to etch my face on his memory...

I was in the throes of finishing my MPhil, spending a lot of time on the home computer, refining the wording, writing those stray paragraphs my supervisor had suggested would render the thesis a cohesive whole, when the electricity cut out.

It should be noted that the cessation of the electricity supply is a common occurrence where I live. The electricity company, Energex, cannot, however, be held responsible. The block of flats in which I live are not strata titled. It was once an old Queenslander house, but was converted to flats so long ago that the traces of the house are residual, apparent only in the common ownership by one landlord and the shared circuits of electricity. Any problem with the continuance of supply is usually traceable to the overuse of heating and cooling appliances or the presence of faulty toasters and kettles.

Every time there’s a change of occupancy, the new tenant goes through a period of acquainting themselves with the idiosyncrasies of sharing electricity, while the rest of us are forcibly reminded of the irritations.

Around the period that is relevant to this anecdote, new evidence had emerged that the ongoing interruptions were not the fault of an unsuspecting new tenant but that of a long term occupant, wilfully using a faulty kettle, but attributing the interruptions to something inexplicable. The most credible theory, proposed by another tenant, involved him sitting in the dark drinking Chateau Cardboard, becoming disorientated and thinking the electricity had gone out, then staggering to the switchboard and flicking all the fuses on and off.

At this point you should know that I had already replaced one hard-drive that had been damaged by an electrical surge during the return of supply after one of these ‘kettle-induced’ interruptions. The threat of another hard-drive melt-down at such a crucial stage in my thesis triggered a reaction that I cannot fully reconcile. The electricity went out mid-sentence, and fury, frustration and fear fused, propelling me outside to confront the suspect tenant.

I had taken three steps out of the door when, from the balcony of the house which I now know was occupied by Charles and his housemates, a guy leaned over the railing and yelled, ‘How the fuck are ya!?’.

Suffice to say, I lost it. I screamed something about guns and death before marching around to the neighbour who was the original target of my ire. In the middle of my hysteria, he asked, with no hint of irony, ‘Are you alright?’. I wept. And then I went back into my flat, but not before I shared my thoughts on homicide with Charles and his house-mates one more time.

I had sometimes contemplated the possibility that one of my neighbours would be in a tutorial or seminar class I was teaching. I had always thought I would take great pleasure in exacting revenge upon them: 'Take that fail for all your drunk and disorderly behaviour, loser!' or some much more witty riposte. You can glean from my embarrassment at Charles's recollection of 'a year or so ago' that I pretended nothing had ever happened. Even as Charles proceeded to try every trick in the book when it came to avoiding attendance requirements and seeking assignment/examination extensions, I would greet him in a neighbourly way. He never mentioned specifics either, but I did notice that the cars using the driveway to his house drove by at a much more leisurely pace than they had previously...

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