It seems that my neighbours have, in real estate parlance, 'abandoned the premises'. This fact only dawned on me when I came home the other day and saw that their gates were open and so was a downstairs door. Until this point I had assumed they'd gone on an extended holiday, which, given the recent school break, was not too far fetched an assumption.
It's true they left on the Queen's Birthday weekend. On the same Friday afternoon that I waited for a friend, before we headed for the Bunya Mountains, I noticed from my kitchen window that my neighbours were also packing. A trailer was attached to their car and I guessed they were going on a camping trip.
When I returned after my long weekend away, I saw that they hadn't returned. In some ways this was a bit of a relief. When I had first seen them packing up, I had laughed to myself how typical it was that on the very weekend I was choosing to go away, my neighbours were going away too. I thought, rather churlishly, that if they were going away then I would like to have been at home to enjoy the peace and quiet in their absence. While they weren't the noisiest or most annoying neighbours I've ever had in my life, there were times when their music, blasted at odd intervals throughout the day, drove me to swearing at my ceiling.
Upon my return, I noted their continued absence and looked forward to some time to enjoy what I'd thought I would miss out on. At this point, I figured they'd taken an early start to the school holidays. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I thought this, except to say that there were school age children living there, even if they didn't observe school hours. It was the fact of there being children at the house during school hours that led me to conclude that my neighbours had indeed taken an early pass for the forthcoming school vacation. For some time, I also drew the conclusion that the lack of observation of school timetables, combined with the fluctuating numbers of children living next door--sometimes there were three or four children, other times just one--was evidence that my neighbours were foster parents.
This made sense to me on several levels: first I thought that if they were looking after children who had come from unstructured backgrounds then it wasn't that untoward; I also figured into my assumptions that my neighbours were Aboriginal and that fact probably accounted for a whole lot of things that, from my perspective, I couldn't know about.
Ah. Here I come face to face with a whole host of my assumptions, some of which I'm not sure aren't implicitly racist.
Exploring the foster care assumptions further, I guess, in addition to the indicators I outlined above, I was informed by one of my clearest memories of anyone I went to primary school with, an Aboriginal boy, GG. He was in foster care and we used to catch the bus at the same bus stop to go to school. There was a group of us who used to eat guavas from the trees while waiting for the bus, and G would often chase me, holding out before him one the exo-skeletons shed by cicadas that clung to the sides of the trees. I would run amongst the trees screaming as he threatened to attack me with it. I remember when I found out that he was a foster kid, how it moved me quite profoundly, because it seemed to be quite an awful thing. It made me feel ashamed that the worse thing you could do in the playground at school was wear green and so be accused of being a GG fan--he always had a running nose.
I went through a stage of wondering if my neighbours hadn't organised some alternative schooling arrangement. At this point, it didn't occur to me that the children simply weren't being schooled. I still don't know this; this is all the work of my vivid imagination arising from a few observations out of the kitchen window while washing up.
The parent figures didn't seem to work either. Again I only know this because I work from home. What's to say they didn't too? The man was often working on cars, so from that I decided he must make money from re-conditioning engines. Often times I would hear him listening to horse, maybe dog, racing on the car radio, urging his bet to cross the finish line first.
The woman would often sit outside in the mornings, on a chair set up near the cars. Together they would chat amicably. One day I came home and a raised garden bed had been built near where she sat, a round, stone-edged garden planted with aloe vera.
I was always returning footballs and tennis balls over the fence, sometimes without witness, sometimes with a wave of thanks and hello.
Often they would sit outside at night too. Their friends would visit in vehicles that looked as though they came from rural and regional areas, and they would sit around a barbecue, drinking and laughing, before they slept in the beds of their trucks with canopies beneath the stars.
As winter came around, my neighbours took to lighting a fire in an oil drum. Its smoke would come right in my kitchen window and I took to closing it because it made me feel sick.
It was these last few observations that allowed me to make sense of the loaded trailer and the extended absence as I did. I thought they had gone to visit their friends where it was warmer, to sit around other barbecues and drink and chat and sleep in their yards; to seek for the teenage boy in their care a different kind of education.
When I saw the open gates and downstairs door, I thought they had returned, but I couldn't see either them or their car. I strained to see if perhaps someone had broken in, but all I could see was upended furniture and litter through the downstairs door.
The next day I saw a van from the Public Works agency. This was followed by a succession of trucks and vans: two took away the contents of the house; then a glazier replaced missing and broken windows; a plumber and an electrician dropped by; and finally, a garden care service restored the yard. It was this last visit that puzzled me the most, not because they tidied up the yard, but because they went one step further and dug up the garden bed. I saw a man struggle with a pick axe to remove the carefully built stone edging with its squared, level surfaces; I heard the rocks thrown in the back of a truck and hauled away; and now I can see the flattened round expanse of dirt that remains like a smoothed over cicatrice.
It was this act that made my neighbours' disappearance final: the obliteration of the site into which they had expended a great deal of care and skill, around which they had routinely gathered and lived.