Who is my neighbour?

On 8 June 2005 I experienced my very own personal epiphany. Standing in my lounge room while Jeff Buckley crooned about love being not a victory march but a cold and broken hallelujah, I at long last discovered what it meant to be a neighbour.

I live two doors down from possibly the crankiest old woman in Australia. The first time I met her, she yelled at me.

One night at tea I pondered who on earth could be hammering at such a time. When finally I ventured outside, it dawned on me that someone had done the unthinkable. Someone had parked a car in front of my neighbour’s house.

This land, according to her, is hers. She does not have a car, but she tells me the space is needed should she want the ambulance. There is no arguing with her that the ambulance had all the room it needed on the road. There is not a rational bone in her ageing body.

I called the police that night. She was banging and yelling, and I was concerned about the damage she was inflicting on somebody’s new Four Wheel Drive, and her withered hand.

A month ago there was a knock on the door. The gentleman from across the road tells me my cranky neighbour would like a woman to come and help her. She has had a fall and is waiting for the ambulance.

I find her sitting on a chair. A clothes horse sits in the lounge and she asks me to hang out her smalls while she waits. ‘They are clean,’ she tells me over and over. ‘I have an automatic washer.’

I assure her that hanging out washing is not at all foreign to me, and I am not afraid of her smalls.

My neighbour is gone for a long time. I am tempted to park in front of her house but I do not. Others do so in peace. We don’t really miss her. We, my neighbour Peter and I, suspect she will not return home.

Then one day I hear a familiar high-pitched irrational yelling. She is already telling off the taxi driver who has dropped her home.

I am surprised to see her back into her regular routine straight away. Every day she goes to the shops on her own, grabs a bag of goodies and the paper. I often see her sitting in the chair out the front of Coles, mustering the energy it will take to get herself home.

It is a very drawn-out event, but must be familiar and meaningful for her. She has no one to help her, no other networks at all.

On this particular day she drags herself slowly from the taxi to her front door with her frame. Her bag of goodies sits on the low brick fence where the cabby has left it. I watch, intrigued by her stubborn determination to maintain her routine. I am suddenly struck with what can only be described as admiration, and then compassion.

Through a heady cocktail of emotion, and after much deliberation (should I help her or not, would she want it?), I approach my cranky neighbour. She tells me, ‘No, thank you.’ She says she is slow, but all right. I ask her to please let me know if she ever does need a hand.

I return to my lounge room and Jeff reminds me once again that love is not a victory march but a cold and broken hallelujah. The person I am most connected to in the world at this moment is my old and cranky neighbour. I have learnt what it means to love somebody because they are human. I do not feel sorry for her. I have seen strength in her.

At times there appears to be little meaning in life. Sometimes it is just plain hard. In my lounge room I had been confronted by, and was chewing over, the sometimes apparent meaninglessness of life.

It never occurred to me that my cranky old neighbour, in one tiny, seemingly insignificant moment, would reveal to me so overwhelmingly what it meant to be human, in community, a neighbour. There was no victory march but I was indeed thankful for a small and broken connectedness to a fellow traveller, doing the best she can under the circumstances.

Meaghan Paul is chaplain at Methodist Ladies’ College, Melbourne. This essay was one of two she submitted to win equal second and highly commended in the inaugural Margaret Dooley Young Writers’ Award.



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