Portrait

Housebound with an infant, the author watches the street life unfold. By Romy Ash.

Neighbourhood life

People with dogs, or parents with young children, are dragged out into the street no matter the weather: windy days where the pink-trunked angophoras throw gumnuts, 40-degree days itchy with dust and pollen, or in the grey of a misting winter. These neighbours become as familiar to me as the house facades.

For years, I’ve walked past him on the streets around our home. He sports a handlebar moustache and a square face to match the square face of his white pit bull. In the way most people in long-term relationships start to resemble each other, they look similar, he and the dog.

I always make an effort to nod hello because his well-behaved dog still makes me nervous. It walks with such purpose, lead taut, muscles defined, the pink of the dog’s skin showing through the white fur. When he has the dog, he’s dressed in work wear, Hard Yakka sort of thing, steel-cap boots, but every now and then I see him without the dog, and wearing a Hawaiian shirt. If he’s wearing the Hawaiian shirt he’s been drinking. I can smell it when we pass one another, and I worry for him, without the dog. In his tropical shirt he stumbles. I’ve watched him walk down our street steadying himself at each letterbox as he makes his way slowly towards the shops. I’ve watched him fall on the return journey, breaking beer bottles as cars stopped in the street, a young man leaping out to help him up. From my window, with my sleeping child, I cried out, feeling impotent, unable to help.

My apartment is on the second floor and sits out, almost over the street, with huge windows in the lounge room and the bedroom. From my bed and the couch I can see a lot of sky, the tops of the angophoras, and the red of corrugated iron rooftops, the interruptions of chimneys against the clouds. But during the day, unable to leave the house as my child naps, I spend time watching the street. Sometimes I really stare, just to see if someone might feel it and look up. No one ever does.

Everyone seems to have a uniform of sorts. There’s a woman who wears head-to-toe Bombers merchandise. In the winter she swaps the cap and jersey for a hoodie, beanie and scarf. Everything red and black right down to her shoes. Another woman has hair all wound into one magnificent dreadlock that’s flat like a beaver’s tail. For years she’s worn the same black jacket, pants and pointy slip-on shoes. The outfit has greyed, now it looks weathered, the colour of elephant skin. Each time I see her I worry more: what will happen when the shoes and the jacket finally wear through? I wonder at my own uniform, the wash-and-wear outfits of life with a toddler. Sneakers, tights, hoodie. The jumpsuit I wore every day last summer so I didn’t have to think about tops and bottoms.

An old guy streams past daily on his mobility scooter, fluorescent orange flag whipping in the wind. He beeps me if I don’t have my kid, zooming up behind me and around in the joyously righteous way of the elderly. If I’ve got my kid, he’s courteous beyond measure.

I watch my next-door neighbour befriend the people who walk by. She knows everyone’s name, everyone’s story. She plants the verges with wattle, native grasses, banksia, a lemon tree. Gives me the purple fruit of a native grass to eat. I watch her kids grow long in the leg and out of the playpen that used to be set up on the grass beside the footpath. She befriends me. She knows my story. I take my kid to feed her chickens. Her boys spray us with the hose from over the fence and laugh.

I don’t see the man with the handlebar moustache for a long time. I think about him and his dog as I walk the streets and I wonder if he’s okay. I vow if I see him again, I’ll say hello. I’ll be the kind of neighbour who knows people’s names, who knows where everyone lives, who could stop in and check on him, take him something to eat. When I do finally see him he has his dog. He looks the same. He looks okay. I breathe easier, and I cross the street to say hello, and he gives me the same nod, before his dog pulls him unflinchingly forward

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 9, 2017 as "Neighbourhood watching". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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