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Good neighbours

It was a stifling summer night with the usual crowd at the jazz venue Jonathan had frequented regularly for the previous few years. On this particular night he was introduced to Ruth, a rather earnest, slim, dark haired lady, in her early thirties. Jonathan, although somewhat lonely following the recent acrimonious break-up of his marriage to Danielle, and consequent distancing from his young son David, was not seeking a new partner. He felt the need to sort out his feelings and his finances before taking steps in that direction. He and Danielle had sold the family home in North Caulfield, and now he had to find another house with only half the funds, while house prices were sky-rocketing. He really needed to get away by himself to think about his future.

Ruth edged her way from the other side of the table to where his group were seated and suddenly she was sitting next to him. A cold and distant manner came naturally to Jonathan and he found himself using it, despite her insistent, tipsy, approaches. He needed something stronger than beer, but resisted the urge. He felt danger and knew he had to remain sober. In any case, he had to drive home shortly.

As he got up to leave, Ruth jumped up, asking for a lift home. She grafted herself onto his left hand side, walking out with him and waving gaily to the others. Jonathan stiffly agreed to take Ruth home, even though it was out of his way. They passed the Temple Beth Israel synagogue, whereupon Ruth announced she was often part of the congregation there. Jonathan was silent, not wanting to reveal his habits. They arrived at her modest flat in Balaclava, where she almost insisted on a kiss goodnight and an exchange of addresses.

Jonathan felt fleeced by this overbearing woman, but consoled himself that he was not obliged to contact her, even though he had found himself saying that he would! Uneasily, he drove back to his serviced apartment in St. Kilda Road, opened his computer, and lost himself in esoteric electronic musical programs and exchanges with people in Seattle, Avignon, and Brighton, UK. Needless to say, although Jonathan did not contact Ruth, she was sending him SMSs before his head hit the pillow. By 9.00 a.m.the next day she had actually rung him, trying to persuade him to attend the synagogue with her that morning. She insisted, in fact, and Jonathan found himself standing in the lower hall of the Temple Beth Isreal Synagogue, witnessing a Bar Mitzvah of a child who was a complete stranger to him! He felt trapped, and wanted desperately to go home and finish the program he was writing for a musical score about the Holocaust.

His day, however, had been planned for him, and it finished beneath the orderly covers of Ruth's queen sized bed. Looking out the high window of her bedroom, he saw a brick wall, and knew he was in a new prison. Ruth saw him looking up, not sensing his sadness, nor caring really about how he might feel. She remarked how lovely it was to see something as neat as a wall of bricks with no irritating uncontrollable vegetation spoiling the perfection.

In due course, Jonathan bought a small house in a respectable area, next door to an almost identical house built at the same time some ninety years earlier. About a week after moving into the new house, he received a welcoming note of introduction from his next door neighbour, Carole, who had lived there for the previous twenty years.

About three weeks later, when Carole was gardening in the front, Jonathan, from the street, introduced himself and Ruth to Carole. After that and for the next decade, Jonathan kept to himself, and rarely spoke to Carole, or even glanced in her direction, if they were both outside. He once came to her front door to tell her he had been burgled and she, knowing it was a common occurrence, commiserated in a heartfelt way.

About a decade later, Carole noticed that Ruth was present next door a lot more and discussing "issues" with her as though she had taken over the job of attending to anything to do with Jonathan's house. Carole found Ruth rather unsettling as a personality. She would complain about something like too many cars in the narrow street and then she would couch this concern in terms of her global concern that nobody come to any harm. The concern became over-dramatised. Ruth gave the appearance of having befriended Carole, frequently discussing matters concerning the immediate environment. She was what one might once have called a busybody and a gossip.

Inside the small house, Jonathan hardly had a moment of peace. Ruth had moved in, and he knew that if they ever separated, he would lose half of this house, and his wealth would be effectively divided by four, from where it was before he and Danielle separated. He was worried that, ultimately, he would have little to leave his son, David. But it was too late. Ruth had taken over. She changed the decor of all the rooms, having everything painted a glaring white, covering the subtle pastels and dusty mid-tones that Jonathan had hardly noticed, but which he realised later had a soothing effect on him. Ruth moved his desk, so that he was sitting opposite his neighbour's window, facing straight into her lounge room. These windows, facing one another had until now been treated with the utmost respect by the inhabitants of both houses. Jonathan was uncomfortable, and always looked down, but this was the only place left for him to work, following Ruth's re-arrangements. Ruth was out of control, and he could do nothing about it.

Jonathan retreated from the situation, submerged in arcane electronic and theoretical musical propositions. He no longer knew what was going on outside this constructed virtual world he inhabited.

Ruth was not on medication and her need to order her environment increased with each control she put on the exterior and interior of the house. Jonathan became almost an irrelevance to her. She enclosed the back yard with high fences, and an inordinate amount of wooden lattice on top on two sides. The next task was to block out their neighbour to the south, Carole.

At a dinner party one night, where the conversation centred around property values and activities conducive to increasing the value of the domicile, a young lawyer mentioned the shade cloth method of forcing a neighbour to one's will, with respect to fences. He explained to Ruth and the other enthralled dinner guests, that if one attached shade cloth on top of the existing fence, then the fence height was extended legally by this measure. This would leave the neighbour with no choice but to agree to whatever you want, and to be henceforth in fear of this being done again and again, to any height. The neighbour would be powerless to do anything. Ruth was overjoyed, as this was free legal advice, and she could establish to Carole that she knew her rights, and Carole would be powerless.

Ruth got onto her task right away, bringing in a tradesman to erect half a metre of dark green shade cloth on top of the fence between the two houses. Carole came home from bowls one day, to find that there was a dark green band across all her treasured north-facing leadlight windows. Sunlight had been blocked! This also affected her sunroom a little further away from the fence, with an artificial green glow visible behind her plants. The dappled light and shadows of the varied foliage by the fence had been obliterated.

All Ruth had to do now was to wait for Carole to capitulate and beg her for a high fence and another metre of trellis on top. After all Carole was on her own with no obvious male support, and she would never be able to stand up to this. The council would never intervene, Ruth mused.

Several weeks passed. Carole was mystified about this acton on the part of her neighbour, and made many despairing but fruitless calls to the local council. She had to steel herself each time she made an approach, as the information she gleaned was minimal, and she remained confused and ignorant as to her legal rights. She was certain of her moral rights, but her neighbour seemed equally certain of her legal rights, asserting that she could do what she wanted on her side of the fence! She also told Carole to "go away," when Carole tried to ascertain what was going on.

One day Ruth was patrolling the tiny perimeter of her domain when she saw an errant twig with two leaves and a perfect, very pale camellia, smiling at her over the bottle green shade cloth, just out of reach. She marched to the shed for her secateurs and a ladder. Normally she would throw any of Carole's leaves and branches back over the fence for Carole to dispose of. This time though, she decided to put this specimen in a vase. She climbed up on the rickety ladder but still could not quite reach. Rather unsteadily, she put one foot up on the next rung and reached towards the intruder. The ladder rocked back and forth a few times, and then crashed to the ground with Ruth aboard. Ruth was aware of a chiily breeze seemingly in her mouth. She put her hand to her face and saw that it was covered in blood. She had caught her cheek on a nail protruding from the stake that held up part of the shade cloth! She screamed but her voice did not sound like her.

Next door, Carole turned off the vacuum cleaner, as she finished her lounge room. She became aware of the noise from next door. She did not dare go near the fence but she went outside. The screaming and crying were much louder now. She could not see over the shade cloth without a ladder so she raced back through her house to her neighbours' front door.

Jonathan answered the door after less than half a minute. "Something has happened in your back yard. I can hear screaming. You need to investigate!" Jonathan thanked her and raced to the the back door. He had been listening with headphones to a version of his latest composition called "Covid Nineteen, where had you been?" and had been completely absorbed for at least two hours.

He looked around the garden and, there to his left, he saw the ladder lying horizontal, with Ruth's legs tangled in its rungs. Blood was pouring from her face. There was a huge cut right through her left cheek, through which he could see her teeth, as the flap of her cheek folded open.

Jonathan called an ambulance. He couldn't imagine being able to drive, with Ruth in this state sitting next to him in the car and, besides, he wanted to get back to his composition

After Ruth had woken up from her emergency plastic surgery, Jonathan arrived at the hospital. In his hand was a solitary pink camellia in a plastic bag.

Ruth had bandages covering most of her head and all of the left side of her face. She was in significant pain. Jonathan did not stay long but left the camellia by her bedside in a small vase supplied by a friendly woman in a blue uniform.

Ruth was discharged from hospital after three days, but still with her bandages. Her first check up with the surgeon was two weeks later, when she was allowed to see her face. To her horror, her left side was not at all like the right side, and she looked very asymmetrical. There was a large purple scar cutting diagonally across her left cheek and the whole area was swollen with a crimson hue. The nurses changed her dressings and a further appointment was made for three weeks time.

Back home, Jonathan seemed even more remote than before. All Ruth seemed to talk about was her scar, for which she blamed Carole, for having an inconsiderate tree that grew towards the light, in defiance of her shade cloth boundary. Jonathan didn't quite get this logic, and shrugged as he shuffled back to his office to review his composition.

Three months later, Ruth's scar had healed but her face was still noticeably lop sided. The surgeon said that at the the twelve month mark what she would see would probably be the best that her face would ever be. Ruth could go out, but she was grateful for the compulsory face mask dictum from the government to slow the spread of the virus raging in her city. Jonathan and Ruth could not visit friends and nor could they have anyone over. These were the rules. Jonathan felt irritated with Ruth. "She used to put her energies into making fences and blocking out neighbours, but now she comes to me all the time for reassurance about her face. I need a rest," he sighed.

One day, later that year, Carole saw a moving van outside Jonathan and Ruth's house. Carole was surprised as she had not known the house was on the market. By the end of that day, Carole had a new neighbour, Beth, and that is another story!

Carole had heard nothing from Ruth and Jonathan from the time she rang their doorbell to let Jonathan know of what turned out to be Ruth's plight.

One crisp morning a few weeks after Jonathan and Ruth moved, Carole, a masked, rather frail figure, emerged from the front gate for a walk, in the tiny quota of winter sun before a hailstorm expected later that day. Her neighbour on the other side of Ruth and Jonathan's house greeted her in a cloth-y voice through a Donald Duck face mask. Jane told Carole that Ruth and Jonathan had separated after "the accident", and Jonathan had to sell up in order to pay Ruth out her share of the house, and that she and her husband were in the process of negotiating with Beth, the removal of the trellis extension of their boundary fence.

Carole felt a lightness and something almost akin, as she remembered, to happiness. The neighbours' properties would now be free of barriers blocking their views to the sky. This was a kind of freedom, so welcome after many months of the pandemic restrictions weighing on them so heavily, and looming over the minutiae of every ordinary daily activity!