<p>I was the one person who saw the life beyond this house’s tired façade. From my desk, peering into the house next door, it was impossible to miss the flashes of frantic life that streaked past my windowpane.</p>
Every street has one. A brick house surrounded by overgrown grass. It is the eyesore of the street. It used to be ‘one of them’, there are architectural hints of its past life among those other beautiful houses that adorn the street. Chipped Victorian awnings. Blistered paint on winding pillars. Dead flowers lie forgotten like popped balloons in sun-cracked pots. Dirt is scattered over the pathway. There are empty bottles littering the straw-like grass, blown out of a lidless recycling bin. The beige concrete driveway is empty, but a rusty car is parked on the grass, one tyre missing. Kids carrying their Cadbury chocolate fundraisers don’t bother to ring the duct-taped doorbell. A stout brick fence guards the property.
I was the one person who saw the life beyond this house’s tired façade. From my desk, peering into the house next door, it was impossible to miss the flashes of frantic life that streaked past my windowpane.
The smell of fresh curries, egg risotto with prawns and Saturday night barbeques wafted through the fence between our homes. My favourite part of the working day was when I locked myself in my square box of a study. I would open the window of my home office, and peer into Vic’s kitchen next door. He was unemployed, so he spent his days baking for homeless shelters. His wife, like my husband Grant and I, worked in marketing. Vic often joked that we should have dinner, but his wife never seemed to be home. The only people I ever saw in his kitchen were his gorgeous twin daughters, or at least they looked like twins from where I sat. They bounded into the kitchen where Vic waited with biscuits or slices or sometimes, to their dismay, fruit salad.
Our grey bungalow looked tidy and pretty in comparison to their home, lined with lush hedges against a cream lattice fence. Our front yard was neatly trimmed and emerald green, with a pond no one cleaned; yet it remained the same peacock shade. Our cars were tucked into the carport like racehorses in their gates. My sunlit bedroom-turned-study faced the only point where our hedges stopped, providing a view through the latticework into the unkempt house next door. Grant had preferred his home office to face the hedges and Max’s white mansion on the other side. “I don’t think I could focus if I was facing that house. It’s too lively,” he once said, using my words. What he meant was, “it’s too full.”
While Vic and I often caught each other’s eye during the day, we only spoke when I went to get the mail, or fetch the newspaper each morning. He often watched the sunrise from his verandah while puffing on a low-tar cigarette, or stood outside while his baking was in the oven and the kitchen was overheated and stuffy. Sometimes he’d be waiting with a sample of whatever he was cooking up that day. When our lemon tree bloomed, I plucked a bag of misshapen fruit and left it on Vic’s doorstep. The next day, several individually packed snap lock bags sat on his little brick wall. ‘Take a Slice’ said the little sign hanging from the letterbox, written in a child’s scrawl. I took two, but as I landed on our welcome mat, a lemon cake was already waiting there. I took the cake into my study and sat down to type proposals to clients. Vic was chopping apples, and gave me a cheeky wave. One of his daughters sat on the bench in her pyjamas, licking the bowl of some undoubtedly delicious creation. The other ran in circles around the kitchen while Vic tried to keep her away from the stovetop where a pot of porridge was steaming. I waved back, and took a nibble of his lemon slice. I sat still and small, watching and absorbing the energy of the lively house next door while the tangy taste lingered in my mouth. The whistle of the kettle. The small, thin whizz of water boiling on the stovetop. I was convinced I could feel the soft buzz of their fridge underneath my fingers.
During one Sunday breakfast, Grant charged into the room with a chainsaw, grinning madly.
“The hedges?” I asked.
“The hedges” he declared.
For months, Grant had been itching to redevelop the garden, to the point where he was sleep talking about the hedges. “Those bloody hedges,” he kept murmuring. Grant wanted to cut down all the hedges and plant some blossom trees instead to add colour to our plain backyard. I suspected he was also searching for nostalgia. He’d had a blossom tree as a kid; he buried his pet fish underneath it. And the hedges were just the first step. He planned to downsize the shed because we didn’t own ‘stuff’. Grant especially wanted a pool, with deep blue tiles and lights. He’d suggested new fences, because he was concerned about our neighbours being able to see into our yard. I said no.
Grant skipped towards the fridge, pulling out a vanilla Up & Go with giddy delight. “It’ll probably be a two day job, I reckon, with my, uh, skill level.” He grinned, sucking his straw down to the dregs.
“Ask Vic if he’s got a stepladder. Ours is too shaky.”
“And you’d know that how?” Grant laughed, ruffling my bed hair as he left the kitchen. He’d forgotten that I had unpacked the Christmas tree from the attic myself the past three years. I tapped my teaspoon against my bowl, like Vic’s children did, making music. It echoed around the hollow, white kitchen, filling the space with mistimed notes and beats and pauses.
The newspaper arrived late that day. Max, our other next-door neighbour, shuffled out at the same moment that I went to check after it for a third time. The remains of Vic’s cigarette butt smoked faintly on his verandah. Grant was hauling a stepladder he borrowed from across the road. Max frowned, nervously tucking his greying fringe behind his ears.
“Grant, are you cutting the hedges?”
“Yup,” Grant beamed. I grinned.
“Have you got, er, council approval?” Max queried, tugging the drawstrings of his tracksuit.
“Three, maybe four months ago? It’s been in the pipeline a while,” Grant said, raising his eyebrows. “I told you about it at the New Year’s Day barbeque, remember? I’ve got the morning off finally, and enough is enough. Can’t keep putting it off. I’m sick of saying ‘Next time, next month …” The pause.
“Mmm, yeah, see, I just didn’t think they’d, err, approve it. My property, y’know, the fence is pretty bare. Not much privacy … for me, eh,” Max chewed, with nothing apparent in his mouth.
“Not much privacy for us either,” Grant replied.
“You haven’t got anything to hide, have you?” I said slyly.
Max half-smiled awkwardly. Grant pushed him jokingly on the shoulder.
“C’mon Max, we’re redeveloping our garden. It won’t be bare for long, and we won’t be out there much until it’s full of life,” Grant promised. Another pause.
Unconvinced, Max scurried back into his three-storey house, his own newspaper forgotten in his driveway.
“You’d think a man whose windows look directly into our bedroom wouldn’t complain about privacy,” Grant muttered irritably, looking up at Max’s postmodern home. It looked like a neat stack of glossy white boxes, blending seamlessly into the street.
“Hedges,” I reminded him.
“Hedges,” he nodded, keenly.
On Monday, Grant seemed equally bitter with the prospect of work as he was at how little he had accomplished. He was still dressed for gardening, as though wearing the clothes might magically empty his work schedule. Since the sun came up, his phone had been ringing non-stop. He spoke with a low, monotonous voice to each customer who called, leaving a trail of pine needles as he paced around the house. The room smelled like a Christmas tree.
“Good morning Mr. Marketing,” I teased.
Grant groaned, trying to make his coffee while balancing his mobile on his shoulder and looking wistfully out to the garden. As he retreated miserably to his home office, I followed the trail outside. Grant had only gotten halfway through clearing the hedges on the left side. An uncut row of hedge remained on the right, making the yard lopsided. The fresh Christmas smell remained, although it was punctured by the scent of salty pork. I pushed through the branches on the right side, and peered into Vic’s yard. Vic turned around to the rustling sound as his sausages sizzled on the barbeque. I waved. He plucked a piece of meat from the grooves of the barbeque, and broke into a slow jog across his backyard, dodging bright rubber balls on the lawn. He dangled a bite size piece through the lattice. I took it and blew him a kiss. He laughed, and returned to his sausages, gently turning them over until every inch was cooked. I turned around to face my empty, uneven garden, and wondered if we could fit a trampoline in the back corner. Grant’s tools lay scattered on the lawn, waiting. I picked up a handsaw, stepped up to one of the hedges on the left, and sawed off a twig. It sliced neatly off the mother branch. I tried a larger one, as thick as three fingers. It made a clop as it hit the mulch below. One by one, I picked away at stray branches until a small fort of kindling built up around my feet. One scratched my leg. Three stubborn boughs refused to leave the tree. The hedges looked like chicken skewers – thin at the top and the bottom with all the meaty branches in between.
“Hey, easy there.” Grant strode briskly from the deck, his phone still plastered to his ear. His spare hand stretched out to me, like I was a child to coax away from a platform. I grinned, and hauled myself to the top rung of the stepladder. It wobbled slightly.
“Don’t go up that high, you’re not as tall as me,” Grant warned, holding the base. I sneered, but it did feel more secure. His eyesight was in line with my waist. I chewed through the wood, branch by branch. Grant kept one hand on the ladder and his phone in the other. Slowly, the lattice diamonds came into focus. I could see Max’s pink-stone patio. His lawn was more sap coloured than ours, like he only put the sprinklers on once a month.
“Anything interesting?” Grant joked, tucking his phone into his pocket.
“He has a fire orchid.” I deadpanned. “Some bushes, a shed and, no, sorry, a cubby house-”
“The orchid or the cubby house?”
He tutted. “Cubby house.”
“It looks like a pumpkin. It’s a bit much, I think blue would look better in ours.” A beat.
Then I saw her: a face in the scratched plastic window of the cubby house. I fell, my head knocking on a brick.
“Mel, oh crap. I should have caught you!”
“Call triple zero,” I screamed.
“Yes, yes, an ambulance-”
“NO, THE POLICE.”
“She needs help!”
“She’s in the cubby house. I saw her face.”
“Crap. No, love, she’s not there.”
“Melanie?” I heard Vic’s voice. “What’s wrong?”
“She fell,” Grant said curtly.
“Help her,” I wailed. Grant accidentally dialed too many zeros, cursed again. I heard footsteps. “She’s in the cubby house!”
“What is she talking about?” Vic’s figure loomed above.
“She saw her in the cubby house,” Grant mumbled tiredly, the dial tone humming in his ear.
Vic played with the stepladder, checking it was safe before he climbed, curious. I pulled myself up, swatting Grant’s arm away. “Look, she’s there. SHE’S THERE.”
Grant pulled me down gently, nursing my head. A voice crackled on his end of the phone. Vic yelped from atop the ladder. There was a slight stench of burnt pork sausage.
The police were irritated, and left our house in a bad mood. The paramedics bandaged me up, but they seemed keen to get away from the woman sobbing about a girl in the window. I should have realised she wasn’t blinking. Most children blink. I leant on Vic’s bony but sturdy shoulder while Grant screamed at Max, who was recoiled uncomfortably against his fence.
“It’s embarrassing, Max. Absolutely embarrassing-“
“You had no right to look into my yard” Max yelped hurriedly, like he had been mustering up all his courage to say that one sentence. “I told you I wasn’t comfortable with you cutting the hedges. And letting Melanie do it when she’s clearly unstable-“
Grant grabbed him by the collar. “She’s unstable? Max, it looked like there was a real person in there. You terrified her.”
“If it bothers you, I’ll turn her away from the window. But I like her there. She sparkles in the sunlight.”
Grant seemed unsure whether to feel pitying or disturbed, but he let go of Max, and with a tight hug, guided me back into our house. Vic’s kids were sat on their verandah. They smiled at me, and upon closer inspection, I realised that they weren’t twins after all.
Vic isn’t here to greet me as I pick up the newspaper today. Grant is working in his study; his car is parked in our new sandstone driveway. Giselle is waiting in the kitchen. I brush the autumn debris off the plastic newspaper sleeve, and flip to the fifth page. The awkward photo of Max with his arms clasped protectively around his cardboard cutout of Bella Swan is just as disturbingly hilarious as when Vic texted it to me this morning. The way she ‘sparkles in the sunlight’ isn’t quite captured by the photographer. ‘NOT JUST FOR TEENS’, the headline proclaims. It goes on to talk about Max’s “generously sized Twilight memorabilia collection creatively arranged in a backyard cubby house.” Apparently he will host tours soon. There’s a throwaway line about the nosy neighbours who brought attention to Max’s “extraordinary” collection when they rudely looked over his fence. Grant spat on Max’s mailbox before we left.
Our new house is in a dead end street shaped like a soup spoon, lined with jacaranda trees. A great find on such short notice. A patchwork stone wall obscures our front yard. If we have any next-door neighbours with vampire-themed hoarding fetishes, we don’t know yet. To the left is a sleek rectangular house. On the right is a bright kindergarten with a rose garden and toys sprinkled like hundreds and thousands over the grass. Some of the flowers closest to the pathway have been trampled. Our house looks like a stump in comparison, a cosy bungalow with a front yard full of mismatched greenery that is dwarfed by other trees in the street. Though it’s not quite an eyesore, there is something out of place about our new home. Grant welcomed the change; he is eager to find space for his pool, or at least a trampoline.
I open my laptop on the dining table. Between the slits of our shared log fence, I can see into the kindergarten next door, where the kids paint with their thumbs and eat playdough and sing nursery rhymes. Papers and files are tidily tucked into my filing cabinets, which are neatly disguised in television cupboards. Giselle lives in the centre of the dining table. She swims haphazardly around her home, finding and forgetting space as she desires. Sometimes I lean my head alongside the bowl as she shimmies through the water. Sometimes I hold a pen up to the glass, just to watch her ignore it. No matter how closely I observe her, I never quite know where she is looking. Sometimes it feels like I am in the fishbowl, while she is swimming beyond the surface, blowing bubbles in the air and shining when her scales catch the sunlight.