I was out the front of my house this evening, picking up the local paper and the mail, when I noticed my elderly neighbour Herbie walking up the street. Herbie is pinned together with rods and titanium—I forget what happened, although I think he did tell me once—and he was walking a little stiffly. "Been for a walk?" I asked. "Been at the club," he answered. Man of few words, Herbie, and he's not the warmest chap on the Earth, but I do try to be friendly to him and his wife Marion whenever I happen to see them. It's good to be on good terms with your neighbours.
The first conversation I ever had with Herbie was memorable. I spotted him watering his front yard, so I made my way over to have a chat, perhaps hoping for a grandfatherly, walk your dog type living next door. Not to be. (Not that I have a dog, but you know...)
Herbie started out by mentioning how long the rubbish I'd cleaned out from around the property and put out for collection had been lying on the nature strip. I explained that I'd been given the wrong information about the collection date. "Marion and I always ring first before we put it out," he observed. Or maybe chided. Hard to tell. Laconic chap, Herbie.
I thought I'd lighten things up by asking him if the boys (my cats) had been over to visit. "Yes, yes," Herbie said."They've been in, lying in the pansies, poohing in the garden." Oh dear, I said, just put the hose on them if they're a problem. "Only so many times you can do that," said Herbie. Right.
And then it was the standard lamp in my living room. "Bright light you've got in your window there. Is it a spotlight?" Spotlight? Why would I have a spotlight in my living room? Oh, no, I explained, it's just those new environmental lightbulbs, they have a really hard light. I can move it if it's bothering you. "Ah, no. No need." Good-oh. I'm not even sure how you can see it from your place, there don't seem to be any windows that side of the house, but right you are. Point taken. Light is bright. Sorry about that.
It's hard to tell whether Herbie is being critical or just making conversation. Inflection is not his strong point. But I couldn't shake the feeling that in my first few weeks in my beloved new house, I'd used up my three strikes.
That was back in September. Tonight, Herbie's back was troubling him, and I didn't like to keep him, but I have been curious about this bit of fence that sits at the front of my property. My house is old, as I may have mentioned—built in the 1870s—and this scrap of fence is made in the post and rail style of fencing common to farms and old houses. Here's a photo:
(That's a mulberry tree that seems to have self-seeded. I'd love to have a mulberry tree, but I am going to be putting in a full fence along the front eventually, and I fear the tree will have to go. And the old post and rail, which I'm coming back to. And yes, I need a new letterbox.)
There's a bit of similar post and rail fence in Herbie's neat front yard, and I wondered why they were there. The two bits are not aligned, and Herbie's house is nowhere near as old as mine, and anyway, mine, I am told, was moved to its present spot only in the 50s, so the fence can't really be "original". And so it was a mystery.
So I asked Herbie about these bits of fence tonight, and he perked up noticeably. "I made them! I put it in for—" He struggled to remember the name, and now I can't remember—Graham or something like it. A previous owner or tenant, anyway. Herbie seemed really proud of his bits of fence, and why not. I'm fond of it myself—although now I'm thinking I might not be the most popular neighbour if I take it down to put in a picket fence. I guess I'll worry about that when I can afford the fence.
So as the conversation had warmed up a bit over this raggle-taggle bit of fence, I took the opportunity to pick Herbie's brains about when my house was moved to its present site. I have been told it was some time in the 50s. I actually asked Marion about this back on the day when I embarrassed them both by taking them a tin of biscuits for Christmas, and she assured me with the wave of a hand that my house was moved long before the 50s. She and Herbie moved to their house in 1959, but are life-long residents of this town, so even though memory is fallible, chances are they'd have some idea. And asking Herbie the same question today, I might have struck gold.
"I'll ask Ken Wilson for you," Herbie said. "His in-laws used to own the place."
Oh, yes, please do—that would be wonderful. I don't suppose you know where it originally came from? I was told maybe from a nearby rural town, where the mushroom farms are. "No, no, they just brought it straight over from George or Macquarie Street." These are the main streets through the town, parallel to mine, and there are a still a lot of old houses on those streets, some of them heritage listed. I'd been told my house would have been heritage listed if it weren't for the fact that it has been moved. Heritage listing is a mixed blessing—it means an old house like mine can't be torn down by an unsympathetic owner, but it also means that even a sympathetic owner can barely change a washer without permission.
"They tried to get it heritage listed," Herbie told me—confirming the story I'd been told by the real estate agent I bought it through, but more astonishingly, volunteering conversation. Oh, I'd heard that! I said. "Yes, I'll tell Ken to drop in and have a chat with you, next time I see him to talk to. Weekends would be best, right?" Right, I work during the week, so a weekend would be great. Oh thank you, I'd be so pleased to speak to him—I really want to research the history of the house, but it's difficult because it was moved. Land titles don't record that kind of information.
"Yeah, I'll tell him next time I see him. Ken Wilson's his name. He just lives up on George Street."
The merest of pauses.
Well, yeah. His name's Ken Wilson. I doubt he's Sri Lankan. Or Chinese. Like the new neighbours on the other side of me. The ones that—I kid you not—run the restaurant in the very club on the corner Herbie had just enjoyed a quiet late afternoon beer at.
This happens to me from time to time. I am the kind of person who likes to strike up conversations with people—I like people, and I like talking, and I look like a nice middle-class Anglo girl, which I am (not so much of the girl, alas), and so other people, often but not always older Anglo people, often feel quite free to say the most casually racist things to me in the course of a chat and it always makes my stomach drop and I never know what to say.
There was the guy in the bottle shop, who I stupidly told about the Indian Mynah bird I had just that day witnessed murdering (there's no other word for it) another Indian Mynah by jumping up and down on it and pecking it to death. (Reminded me that nature IS red in tooth and claw and so too are my cats and so it's not so tragc if they pick off the odd non-native. But I digress.) "Well yeah," said bottle shop bloke. "They're always murdering each other, those Indians." It was a BIRD I said, dumbstruck, although not so dumb as he. Not, get me your manager, you racist moron. Your customer relations SUCK. Which is what I wish I'd said.
And then there was the older woman in the post office, some ten or more years ago (when I was still young enough to be viewed as potentially fecund), who thought I was pregnant (wasn't, never have been to my knowledge, but neither am I, nor was I then, the slim young thing I was at 21—and in her defence I was wearing a smockish frock). She covered her not inconsiderable embarrassment at my non-pregnancy by deflecting her comments to an appalling diatribe about the Asian families in her block of flats who had the temerity to have children. Who made noise and anyway if they couldn't afford a house they had no business having children. They're just having families like everyone else, I rather lamely (and non-pregnantly, although I did live in a flat, so I guess that was considerate of me) said.
Truth is, I AM a nice white, middle-class girl, and I'm not quick to be rude, even to seethingly racist old ladies and brain-deficient bottle shop attendants, although sometimes I wish I were. Especially when I'm never likely to see the person again. (It may come as a surprise to you, but there is more than one bottle shop in this town I half-affectionately call Bogan-villea.) But what about when it's your next-door neighbour? What do you do then?
What did I do? I gave Herbie a deliberately exaggerated quizzical look when he told me Ken Wilson was Australian. Really? Ken Wilson is Australian? Ken Wilson with that ridiculously Anglo name, whose in-laws owned—and clearly treasured—a significantly-old-for-this-country house, and who lived in a town that is remarkable white and has been for decades, is Australian? Whatever can you mean by telling me that?
"You can understand him," Herbie explained.
It's OK, Herbie, I said, I've worked with people from all over the world all my life, and I don't have any trouble understanding them.
It wasn't the strongest riposte I could have made, but I hope it at least didn't leave me entirely complicit in that casual racism, which I know is not the worst kind of racial hatred, but nor is it benign. I'm sure Herbie is assiduously polite to the Vietnamese people who run the bakery and cake shop at our local shops, even if their very presence in this fiercely and proudly white "Australian" community discombobulates him. I know that comments and attitudes like this are borne out of a deep discomfort with what this very astute article by Bernard Keane, describes as "social change and the social and economic transformation of Australia ... that older, white Australians resent".
And I simply don't want to get off side with him—because he and Marion are my neighbours and it's good to be on good terms with your neighbours. And I kind of understand them, and anyway, I was the die-hard arty, greenie-leftie, inner-west girl who picked herself up and moved from her cafe-latte-bookshop-yum-cha-portugese-tart of a suburb to a town where the pig shooters run free. It's a bit rude—not to mention stupid—to expect the town change to accommodate me and my world view. Gentrification, we sneeringly called it, when the middle-class moved into the working class suburbs of that inner west I used to call home, even as I was a small part of its transformation. The irony is not lost on me.
Herbie had the last word as he walked the few remaining metres to close his gate and have his tea with his Marion.
"Lawn grows fast, doesn't it," he observed (or was it chided?) of my slightly post-rain unruly lawn. Point taken, Herbie. I'll get the bloke with his mower in. Got to keep the neighbourhood nice.