Sunday, 28 August 2011

Neighbours - everybody needs....

Anytime I hear one of those stories on a television tabloid current affairs show about the person who died 4 years ago and none of the neighbours noticed they were missing, I worry.  It's not that I worry about myself dying alone in my apartment and it taking a while for anyone to miss me.  I mean I've got this blog now, where I write daily.  So you, my audience, would notice if I wasn't writing.  Right?

I have had moments of panic in the middle of the night when I've got up to get water and become entangled in the wide-legged pyjama pants that seemed like a good idea at the time.  Pictures of me falling and cracking my head open as I fight to grab hold of anything I can reach and finally pulling a heavy mirror on top of myself and slashing myself to pieces, leaving me hideously scarred if I do survive, flash through my mind - like I need seven years' bad luck after that - as I miraculously manage to stay upright and sleepwalk my way to the kitchen.  The apartment downstairs is empty at the moment so there's not even anyone to hear the thud.

I think about this because I have an officially strange man as a neighbour and I have contemplated the scenario where he is found dead after a long period and we uncaring neighbours are caught by the tabloid cameras as we continue to live our nonchalant lives.  Look, there they are, emptying their bins like nothing has happened.  Hanging out their washing as if nothing has happened.  Drinking coffee and reading the paper, like nothing has happened.

This man lives downstairs from me and I was warned about him when I first moved in.  On the night I arrived I pulled up my car at the foot of the stairs to take a load of stuff inside.  My lovely neighbour across the landing warned me that he, Gottfried*, would be very upset if I parked in his spot.  She also warned me that he didn't even have a car to park in the spot, but that wasn't the point.

Sure enough, as I returned downstairs to the car, I was confronted by this man with skin that hadn't seen daylight for a long time, dressed in what I can only describe as 1940's German Stasi leathers, complete with goggles and leather hat.

"You can't park there," he railed.

"Hello!  You must be my neighbour.  I'm Tanya."  I didn't offer my hand because frankly I was a bit scared to touch him.

"You can't park there."

"Oh, sorry.  I'm not parked.  I'm stopped.  Sorry if it's meant you can't park your car."

"I don't have a car, but you can't park there."

Right.  So he was one of those control freaks who exercises petty power wherever he can.  But then I didn't see - or hear him - for months and months and months.  The blinds on his windows were never open.  His door never opened or closed.  No lights could be seen at night.  He had a piece of metal bolted across his mailbox.  I started to imagine all kinds of things inside his apartment. Like lamps made from human skin. A coffin in which to sleep. And then something magical happened - I heard him playing the piano.

Marvellous, complicated and...happy...ragtime!  How incongruous!  If music was to be played, surely it would be an organ with the music of death.  If he hadn't been wearing that full leather get-up during summer, maybe I wouldn't have been so quick to frame him in the Gothic.  I opened my door to share in the music.

One morning as I went past his door, I noticed a card pushed through the mesh on the security door.  Naturally I read it.  It was from the Department of Housing advising that their plumber had been around as requested, but they were leaving this card as no one had been home when they had called.  I couldn't imagine Gottfried not being at home and noticed that the card was there when I came home.  It stayed wedged in the mesh security door for about three weeks.  It was then that I started to worry about tabloid television.

It was hard to know what to do.  He was never to be seen normally.  Occasionally we'd hear the piano, but not often enough to notice when it wasn't there.  I began to imagine I could hear ghastly sounds from within.  I was certain there was a smell in the neighbourhood (turns out that was from the notorious local pet food factory).  There was no reason not to believe he wasn't enjoying a beach holiday somewhere in the Pacific, trading his World War II costume for Hawaiian shirts and sarong.  Well, there was plenty of reason really.

I studied the card the next time I went past and discovered it had a phone number on it.  It was for the Housing Department.  I wrote down the number and decided to call.  Of course I didn't have his last name, but when I mentioned his first name and address to the harried sounding social-worker-type-woman on the end of the phone, I'm certain I heard a snort of frustration.  She asked me what I wanted her to do about it and what business was it of mine anyway?  She asked for my name, but I chose not to give it to her, saying only that I was a neighbour, concerned that no one seemed to have been in or out of the apartment for a number of weeks.

The next day the card was gone and I ran into Gottfried at the organic food store in the village.  During daylight hours!  He greeted me, using my name 75 times in the space of 90 seconds.  He knew something.  I could have said it was good to see him (alive) and that I'd been concerned that something had happened to him, but none of that was really true.  Truthfully, my concern was for my media image.  So, I'm shallow.

The next time I saw him was earlier this year when I stopped the car in the forbidden spot to unload luggage that my companion and I had in the car.  The engine was still running and as we pulled the bags out of the car, Gottfried arrived on a push bike and started yelling, "You can't park there!  You can't park there!"

"Hi Gottfried, " I said casually.

"Oh, it's you, Tanya." It freaked me out that he used my name so consistently.  Why?  "You can't park there.  If I let you park there, everyone will want to park there and I'll have to let them because it wouldn't be fair if I was inconsistent."  He was talking to me like I was five.  My companion went upstairs with the bags.

"I'm not parked.  I'm stopped.  Just so we can unload the luggage.  You don't have a car anyway.  Look I'm moving the car now."  And I got in the car and drove to my spot.

That was in January.  I haven't seen him again.  But I have heard the piano.

*Not his real name, but only just.

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