Good Neighbours

 By Jane Downing

The water was gushing onto the tiles, lifting breadcrumbs, grated carrot and all the bits and scraps that hadn’t been swept for weeks. Bethany’s momentary snap of housewifely guilt was drowned in the rising tide.

‘Stay out,’ she shouted at Lucinda. The toddler’s eyes were wide, unbalanced by a war between concern and excitement as she stood in the doorway, hanging onto the wall.

Bethany opened the cupboard under the sink and a wave of water as high as her knees cascaded into the flooding room. Paralysis set in. Staring at the fun park of pipes and taps and spigots under the sink was as helpful as panicking. But no more helpful.

Movement outside the window pressed play on the endless movie she no longer recognised as her life. From the backdoor she shouted, and the neighbour turned from the communal washing line. It was like reeling in a frightened animal but the urgency in her voice won over obvious reluctance. The neighbour came.

There were two cement steps up to the backdoor from the shared yard. They were a waterfall. The woman was old but managed a leap over both. She went onto her knees at the sink. Appeared to briefly pray. Then stuck her head right in.

The pipes moaned in the walls. A shudder convulsed the footings of the flat. The water, now dammed, flowed elsewhere.

And little Lucinda, untethered from the wall by the look of delight on her mother’s face, toddled forward, her toes kicking up little seahorses of water at each step. She fell against the still kneeling neighbour, picked herself up and climbed her mother’s leg.

‘How did you do that?’ Bethany laughed. ‘You’re a miracle worker.’

The neighbour struggled to her feet using the orange Laminex bench as support. Her voice was scratchy, as if she hadn’t spoken for days. ‘There’s a spigot under there.’ She pointed. ‘Only good thing my father ever taught me. Any plumbing problem, turn the taps clockwise to block the flow. You know, tighten to the right.’ Her wrist did the actions as she sang, like this was a nursery rhyme, lefty-loosey, righty-tighty.

‘Your father must have been a good man. Or is.’

Her neighbour’s face shut down. ‘But now you’ll need a real plumber,’ the woman said.

The reality of Bethany’s life crashed back in now the immediate crisis was over. She’d been sacked as a housewife when her husband left, but here she was, stuck with all the same duties and responsibilities.

The next day Bethany knocked on her neighbour’s door with a plate of fresh-baked mini-muffins balanced on her right hand.

It took nearly three minutes for the door to open. A crack. Then a little more. Bethany really looked at her neighbour this time. Maybe she was only in her late-40s, early-50s. The grey hair confused the issue. It was out today, a curtain of it almost to the woman’s waist. When plaited and coiled in a bun, it hadn’t made any statements. Bethany wondered how much time it took to care for it. Suspected latent vanity. She ran her fingers of her left hand through her serviceable bob as she stuck out the plate with her other. The neighbour pushed back her cardigan sleeves and with a hand as pale and thin as a Disney princess’s, took the top muffin. They hadn’t risen well and were stacked neatly like bricks.

‘Thank you.’ The neighbour smiled. And closed the door.

Bethany knocked on the door again. It opened immediately.

‘The whole plate. As a thank you. For your help.’

Something Bethany did not quite recognise flooded the woman’s face. All the creases and wrinkles, the downward pull at her lips, were erased for a second. As if happiness is like photoshop, she thought.

‘We can sit out there,’ the neighbour said.

Bethany hadn’t sat in the covered communal area at the front of the low-cost flats before. Reduced circumstances had warehoused her here, but she wasn’t quite ready to see herself as part of this community of losers.

The woman introduced herself as Fiona as they walked down the overgrown path.

Bethany suspected Fiona had a story, just like everyone else in the warren of flats. A story sad and depressing and dull. She suspected a hoarder’s nest behind her closed front door. Rooms identical to her own but cluttered and furred with dust and rat droppings.

Her own front door was wide so she could hear if Lucinda woke from her nap. She positioned herself in the gazebo – a far too grandiose a name for the steel frame around splintered benches – with a clear line of sight to the door and the shadowed corridor leading back from it. Fiona sat in the only spot of sunlight, squinting, her eyes framed by crow’s feet and puffy eyelids. Sleeplessness under her eyes could, in the wrong light, look like bruising. Bethany filled the silence with the endless drama of the plumber and the sink.

‘Lovely,’ said the neighbour-who-was-now-Fiona as she raised her half-eaten muffin like a champagne glass in a toast, before making a lie of her compliment by discreetly crumbling small portions onto the cement behind them. Two currawongs were not shy in accepting the open invitation. They skittered forward, daintily picked with their butcher’s knife beaks, then tilted their heads to swallow the crumbs. There was a brief squabble over a hunk of cooked apple.

Bethany chose not to notice. Her superhero power.

When Lucinda appeared, sleep-mussed and clutching Penny, the overstuffed Penguin, the neighbour retreated, leaving behind the rest of the muffins.

Bethany was shocked when she managed to get through the door into Fiona’s flat a week later. This time she was carrying better muffins, volcanically muffin-topped store-bought samples because her welfare payment too was fresh, and tomorrow was tomorrow. Lucinda rode her hip, and in they sailed, into a flat that was as near to empty as to call it that. It made Bethany think of a nun’s cell. Nun/none. She expected iconography above door arches but saw only a tower of gold $1 coins on the lintel into the kitchen. She knew not to read ritual into them. The coin-operated washers and dryers in the communal laundry were explanation enough.

Catholic words bubbled up for all the word pictures in Bethany’s mind: the floors were immaculate. She let Lucinda loose without hesitation. The child sat at Fiona’s table and licked sugary cream cheese off a muffin.

They were not friends. Bethany did not need a new friend; she had enough from her old life, real friends who stuck, though some demoted themselves to acquaintances as they hung out at backyard barbeques with her ex and his new partner.

Fiona-next-door only had one visitor. He’d come in a white sedan and stay an hour. Once a month. Sal had been with Bethany one month when the man arrived. Summer, windows open, there was little privacy between the flats. Sal speculated about the black economy: money-making that was not reported to Welfare. Bethany did not join in, figuring it was none of her business what Fiona did or did not do. Especially as Fiona did not look the type. She silently wondered if there was a crucified Jesus above her bed.

They were not friends; it wasn’t that. Fiona probably wasn’t old enough to be a granny, but Bethany’s mother was so far away this was an easy evolutionary niche to slot her neighbour into. Bethany got into the habit of visiting daily, graduating from formal front door to backdoor access. Bethany found herself confiding in Fiona – about how hard it was to be solely responsible for a child. For body and soul. It wasn’t all justification for the shouting Fiona must overhear through walls and open windows. The crying. The time she smacked Lucinda and both wept at the unfairness of it all on the kitchen floor until neither had any energy left to rage.

It felt natural to invite Fiona to Lucinda’s second birthday party. When she arrived, late, Bethany hardly recognised her. Fiona was a jeans and t-shirt kind of woman normally, but she wore three flouncy tiers of dress hanging on with shoe-string straps. It was from another era, decades old, with hints of a style coming back into fashion.

Lucinda noticed her arrival right away. She broke away from the muddle of guests and presents and boxes and wrapping and pink and pink and pink, and threw herself at Fiona’s legs. She draped herself into the wonderfully silky flowing swirl of dress as Fiona laughed, which made Bethany realise, not only had she never seen Fiona in a dress before, she’d never heard her laugh.

In the best photograph of Lucinda blowing out the two candles – pink – on her cat-face-shaped cake, Fiona hovered in the background, her dress a garden of colour and joy, her face averted, eyes focused just beyond middle-distance.

There was no way to crop her out of the photo later.

Sal took a photo of the three of them that day, which she printed out and gave to Bethany. They could have been a family group – mother, aunty and child maybe – a resemblance in skin tone somewhere between Mediterranean and sub-continental. In their big brown eyes. Bethany cried when she burned that one.

Bethany’s husband had loved her big brown eyes, until he hadn’t. He didn’t want to see his daughter anymore because, quote, unquote, she looked at him with her mother’s eyes.

The words were in a note stuck in Lucinda’s backpack when he returned her to the flat after the last visit.

I won’t cry, Bethany told herself. Uselessly.

Next morning on their walk, Lucinda climbed out of her stroller. She started snapping flowers from the nature strip opposite the strip mall of for-lease shops. Cape weed flowers – radiations of sunrays around a black hole. She held one up to her mother to smell. Bethany sneezed. Hay fever was a better excuse for red eyes than blubbing like a baby over lost… lost everything.

While her mother sobbed again, Lucinda ran off towards the creek, if a clogged drainage area can be called that. The pickings were better there. She dropped the yellow Capeweed in favour of Patterson’s Curse. The sheen on the flouncy petals flashed violet, lavender, and purple as the stems bent under her stubby fingers, the colours’ attraction outweighing the prickliness of the stems.

‘Aren’t they lovely, Lucy-Lu,’ Bethany agreed. She didn’t have the heart to explain these flowers were bad. The woman who’d first planted Paterson’s Curse in the nineteenth century had surely been aching with nostalgia for all she’d lost in her home country. Little did she know they’d take over. To her, they’d been solace, not pest.

When Lucinda tired on the walk home, Bethany let her push the stroller as a treat. She laid the bouquet of weeds on the empty seat like a wreath.

Fiona was pulling shopping out of her Mazda hatchback when they got to the car park, and Lucinda took off with a reserve of energy and abandoned the stroller before swivelling back to reclaim the flowers.

‘Oh, Salvation Jane,’ Fiona said solemnly as she took long pretend sniffs at the proffered bunch.

‘Paterson’s Curse,’ Bethany corrected, coming up behind.

‘In South Australia, cows ate them during a drought, they say. Salvation, not Curse. It’s all in the way you look at things.’ Fiona made elaborate thanks to the child and asked her to help find a vase.

‘You can just chuck them,’ Bethany mouthed over the top of Lucinda’s head.

A week later they were still in pride of place in a teacup on Fiona’s kitchen windowsill.

No, they were never friends; she’d tell everyone later. Yet, when she got the call to come into a job interview, Fiona was the first person Bethany turned to. It’d only be an hour, two tops, to watch over Lucinda while she was gone.

‘I’d rather not,’ Fiona said. Firmly. She would not be moved.

Bethany was miffed. It’s not as if Fiona worked. She knew Fiona had been in gaol by this stage – they all had stories, and there was no sense prying further. She knew Fiona’s gentleman caller was her probation officer and knew how difficult finding work must be for her. Imagined Fiona was jealous that Bethany had a chance. But it’s hard for me too, Bethany fumed silently, with Welfare breathing down her neck now Lucinda was two.

Sal stepped into the breach for babysitting. The interview was a mess. As was the next and the next. Bethany had to work out first how to sell herself as something other than a failure. Then there was a part-time job that sounded ideal, and at the last minute, she was invited back for a second interview.

She forgave Fiona and knocked on her door.

‘Fiona please,’ she begged on her doorstep, red lipstick already on, Lucinda balanced on her hip. ‘It’d mean the world to me. She loves you. I’ll be back so quickly you’ll hardly notice.’

Fiona said no at first. ‘Lickety-split,’ Lucinda lisped. Irresistibly as it turned out.

No one answered her knock three hours later. They’ll be out the back, Bethany thought. She circled the flats. Nothing. Went to her own flat to dump her bag. Half an hour later, she began to really worry – the anxiety of the job interview drowned. Where were they? There was movement on her neighbour’s doorstep. She rushed out. Not Fiona and Lucinda.

In this pocket of poverty accommodation for the losers and the lost, the young woman at Fiona’s front door stood out like a rose in a paddock of weeds. Her hair was neat, her teal jacket tailored, and her stockings sheer and ladderless. Her shoes were not sensible. From another lifetime, Bethany recognised them as expensive. Even in her decent shoes and interview wardrobe, she felt like the welfare recipient she was as she walked towards her.

The stranger smiled. ‘I’m looking for Sarah Heston.’ She held out a photograph of a woman in her 20s. A woman with a perm and a Peter Pan collar in fading 1990s snapshot-colours.

Bethany recognised her neighbour instantly. ‘You mean Fiona Harrison.’

A smartphone slipped from the expensive jacket pocket. ‘I’m recording this if you don’t mind,’ the woman said in a quick and meaningless spiel. The word podcast surfaced and sank because of the title. Accounting for the Murderess.

After the initial shock, because it wasn’t a word she’d encountered outside of television dramas, after the absolute moral panic that murder was evil, Bethany remembered the dragging desire of wanting to kill Lucinda’s father.

‘Fiona is a good neighbour,’ she said loudly so the recording app on the phone could pick up her voice unequivocally. ‘The past is the past. A foreign country. No point getting a passport to go there.’ If she was going to be quoted in a podcast, she might as well sound literary. Miss Cook had made them read The Go-Between in Year 11. She’d be proud.

Bethany was wondering if she should have said visa rather than passport, but the podcaster was surging on. Like all journalists, she had more questions. ‘You don’t mind living next door to a murderess?’

And that was when Bethany’s world truly collapsed.

‘I can show you the coroner’s report on the death of her child.’

There was no way to put the realisation into words. That her daughter was missing in the company of a child murderer. That she’d entrusted her only child to a killer. Bethany’s fight-or-flight response was in full flight.

She swung around. And at that moment, Fiona appeared as a distant figure in the far corner; half silhouette against the sun, her distinctive straw hat pulled down like a screen. She was pushing the stroller. Bethany ran. Her decent shoes were ridiculous for running. She flung them into the verge with the deceptively pretty weeds and went faster barefoot. She could see Lucinda in the stroller. Rag-doll slumped. Head to one side against the metal frame. Her little feet bare. Hanging down. Berry-brown from walks and playing in the sun.

Bethany ran as Fiona shouted. ‘What’s happened? Are you okay?’

‘You monster!’ Bethany screamed.

‘We were – The park – ’

Bethany slammed Fiona aside. Both women stumbled. The mother regained her balance first. The stroller’s harness caught, refused to let go, and was torn from the frame, the plastic clip across the chest still locked in place. With the child over her shoulder, Bethany sprinted back to her flat, passing the woman with her smartphone outstretched, shouting, ‘Sarah Heston, it would be good for you to speak to us.’

Lucinda’s head bumped against Bethany’s shoulder, a crack with each strike of her feet on the cement.

The flat next door was empty the next day. Bethany had not heard cars come and go in the night.

Lucinda had splashed in the bath as Bethany examined every bit of her perfect skin. She’d babbled stories through fish fingers and cherry tomatoes and was excited to be allowed to sleep in her mother’s bed with her and her penguin. Slept late. Woken happy.

Bethany looked out at the washing lines. Recognised Fiona’s towels and favourite jeans flapping there. She reassured herself: they’d never really been friends.

Sal backed her up. ‘You have to protect your baby. No debate. Leave forgiveness and redemption to those paedo Catholic priests.’

This sounded harsh to Bethany. As if she hadn’t been thinking the exact same thing.

‘Was it a baby, or a one-year-old, or fifteen, or – When will the podcast – ?’ asked Sal.

‘Does it matter?’ Bethany snapped. Does anything except my baby matter, Bethany wailed silently to herself.

She was relieved when the Paterson’s Curse stopped flowering so she didn’t have to throw out the straggly bouquets Lucinda left on Fiona’s doorstep after every walk.

Brief Bio: Jane Downing’s stories and poems have been published around Australia and overseas, including in Griffith Review, Big Issue, Antipodes, Southerly, Westerly, Island, Overland, Meanjin, Canberra Times, Cordite, Best Australian Poems and previously in Other Terrain. She has a Doctor of Creative Arts degree from the University of Technology, Sydney, the creative component of which, The Sultan’s Daughter, was released by Obiter Publishing in 2020.



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