An ode to good neighbours

The setting is a suburban backyard. The characters: a harried woman hanging washing on the line and an elderly man with mischief in his eyes. The time? Well, any time, really. For this is a story about time. And how – in its infinite elasticity – a little bit can make a big difference.

You see, we live next door to John. Over the past 25 years, I’ve had hundreds of neighbours – good and bad. In the latter category, they rival the stars of the Seth Rogen film Bad Neighbours. In Brisbane, one bloke climbed in my bedroom window wanting to buy some speed. I later discovered our share house had been a notorious drug den.

But John’s not like that. At 87, the only drug he’s on is aspirin (and the occasional glass of port). And he’s more adept at fighting criminal activity than engaging in it. Like the night someone tried to break into his house at three o’clock in the morning. “He’s on the roof, Clinton,” he called to his grandson. “I’ll get the cricket bat!”

Tracey Spicer: “Oh, the joy of a quiet conversation over the back fence. And the company of a good neighbour.”
Tracey Spicer: “Oh, the joy of a quiet conversation over the back fence. And the company of a good neighbour.” Photo: James Brickwood

The bugger jumped into our backyard, only to be tackled by my husband. “Aw, I just need to take a piss. Can I come inside and use your toilet?” he asked.

“Sure,” John called from over the fence. “Ya want me to cook you some bacon and eggs, too?”

But John is a lover as well as a fighter. For more than half a century, he was married to Marcia (coincidentally, also my mother’s name). Their romance was the stuff of sepia-toned films: they met at a dance at the local surf club. “Marce” was one of nature’s nurturers, raising children, tending her rose garden and caring for the community.

Then, one day, she was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. I sat in their kitchen, penning a letter to our local member, asking, begging, pleading for funding for treatment. His name was Tony Abbott. He was the shadow health minister. The letter went unanswered. John never forgave him. Mind you, as a true-blue, working-class man, it’s fair to say he was rusted on to Labor. Aside from Marce (and his girlfriend “Tabitha” – code for the TAB), social justice, history and politics were his passions, and he’d pontificate about them over the back fence.

I’d be hanging out the washing, picking up dog poo and yelling at the kids on the trampoline, when he’d amble over and say, “Hey Trace, did you hear on the radio this morning about the …” I’d be drawn in, losing all sense of time. Like the vines of tomato plants, our conversation wove a tapestry along the fence. During my stints on talkback radio, John supplied much of the material: “You know, you should do something on taxi surcharges/safety on building sites/changes to pensions.”

His prodigious intellect was steeped in a curiosity about everything. When we returned from a tour through Vietnam, he recalled the French and American conflicts from the top of his head. Then he told stories of his own travels, including the time he almost “got his block knocked off” in a US bait-and-tackle shop, after telling the African-American manager how he liked to catch “nigger fish” off the rocks on Sydney’s beaches.

To the kids he was a clown, chasing them after taking out his false teeth. I’ll never forget leaving them with him one day – when they were very young – because of a medical emergency. I came back hours later to find him showing the toddler the form guide, with the baby sleeping soundly nearby. When my daughter Grace was older, he’d pick exquisite roses from his garden and hand them over the fence.

But in April, something changed. He stopped doing laps at the ocean pool. Over the fence, his daughter gave us the news: John had been diagnosed with cancer and had just weeks to live. The next day, I caught him dragging our bins in from the kerb. “What are you doing? Give me that,” I said. “No, love,” he said, smiling. “Gotta keep busy. Only way to stay sane, I reckon.”

But the denouement was nigh. In hospital, he grasped my hand and said, “It’s okay. I’ll be with Marce soon. I’ve had a wonderful life: the love of family, great friends, good neighbours.” Then he dictated his last letter to thank the nurses and doctors who’d been there for the first flicker of life in his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and for the last in his beloved wife.

Too soon, the closing credits rolled. His funeral was true to form: a fishing rod on the casket, a mock race call, a comedian for a priest, and the song Don’t Worry, Be Happy playing when we filed out.

Sometimes, the most important moments of our lives are lost in the cacophony of phone calls, work deadlines, junk mail, kids’ schedules and other detritus. Oh, the joy of a quiet conversation over the back fence. And the company of a good neighbour.

Rest in peace, old mate.