Good Neighbour Day
A novelist suffering from writer’s block finds that his friendly neighbour is his worst nightmare.
I was staring out the window again when I saw old man Nicholson from next door being taken away in a Patient Transport Vehicle. I presumed the poor old bloke was going to a nursing home. I’d seen his daughter a few days before when I went out to get my mail. She was crying. It seems the old man had fallen and spent two days on the floor before she’d found him. It was the first time she’d been away for a long weekend with her husband for years. Poor woman. She was racked with guilt.
I guess that was one of the by-products of living on a quiet street where people minded their own business. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t unfriendly. We’d say hello when we saw each other, we might chat for a couple of minutes now and again, we’d even been known to take in each other’s mail or rubbish bin, but that’s as far as it went and that’s how we liked it. I couldn’t stand the thought of neighbours living in each other’s pockets, knowing everybody’s business, wasting your time chatting and gossiping. I liked my privacy. I needed my solitude. I wouldn’t have been able to write two novels a year if I was being interrupted every five minutes.
By rights I shouldn’t have been staring out the window that day. I should’ve been getting stuck into my new novel. I’d just delivered the year’s fantasy so the next one was due to be a horror story. That’s what I was writing in those days, fantasy, horror and an occasional thriller, under a few different names, none of them my own. My own name I was keeping for that great literary novel I knew I would write some day. You’d know my pseudonyms, though you probably haven’t seen them in the bookshops lately. You see, I’ve been suffering from writer’s block.
It’s a terrifying feeling, a total mental numbness. At least, back in those days, when I was away from the computer my mind was still teeming with ideas, but the moment I turned on the machine and sat in front of that blank, white screen, it all just disappeared. I’d tried a few remedies. I’d taken the laptop to a country retreat, but the same thing happened. I’d tried writing it all in long hand, but I found I had become dependent on the technology. All I wrote was a load of gibberish that took more time to transcribe and edit than it was worth. I even unearthed my old typewriter, but they don’t make ribbons for it anymore. Finally, I got out an old mini-recorder and tried dictating, but, and I of all people don’t like to admit this, my material sounded rather inane when spoken aloud. So there I was, sitting in front of my computer and staring out the window watching old man Nicholson being taken away.
Well, I thought, since I wasn’t doing anything useful, the least I could do was get up off my arse and say goodbye to the poor old bloke. So I bestirred myself, went out and said my goodbyes to the old man and a few encouraging words to his daughter, waved them off and collected the solitary envelope from my letterbox.
It was from my solicitor, a reminder to pay his horrendous bill and a cutting from the newspaper. The old biddy was at it again, accusing me of vilifying her religion in my last book. I mean, in this day and age, who would consider Wicca a religion? A bunch of sex-starved lesbians dancing around naked in the bush chanting ancient spells they’d only just made up. I ask you. And who but an ‘urban witch’, as she called herself, would take offence at a fantasy set in the distant middle ages? All I did was use the age-old archetypes. What would she try next? Having The Wizard of Oz banned?
Well, she’d done her best with me, taken me to court for defamation, and all it had got her was some bad publicity and an order to pay my costs. My solicitor was asking if I wanted to counter-sue for what she was saying about me. I didn’t care. For a writer, any publicity is good publicity. She could say what she liked as far as I was concerned, as long as I never had to see her again. The last time we’d met, outside the Supreme Court, she had glared at me with those pale blue eyes and hissed: ‘May you never write another word.’
All right, so the thought had crossed my mind that her curse had taken effect, but I wasn’t going to give in to superstition. I might have written about it, but that didn’t mean that I believed in it. Autosuggestion, I told myself, fear of it being true, that’s all it was. That was the day I decided I needed a holiday. To get away from the computer, forget about writing for a few weeks, let the old brain circuits reconnect of their own accord, and come back fresh, rejuvenated and hopping with ideas.
Four weeks later, that’s just what I did. On the plane back from Queensland I’d nodded off and had the most terrifying dream. And when I woke up I had the first few lines of my new novel. I’d written them down in my trusty notebook and I couldn’t wait to power up the old PC and get them up on that white screen.
I’d been working feverishly for a couple of hours when the doorbell rang. It was just as I had decided to take a break and, as usual, I was saving my work before getting up when I heard it. The words ‘Oh no’ crossed my mind just as the dialogue box flashed up on the screen. Do you want to save the changes to Document1? And, you guessed it, which box did I hit? No. Three hours of work, down the drain.
So I wasn’t in a particularly neighbourly mood when I finally answered the door just to stop the persistent ringing of the bell. He was a middle-aged man in a cardigan with rosy cheeks, thick glasses, a comb-over and an unnaturally white smile.
‘Hello,’ he chirped, before I could tell him to get lost and take his Watchtowers with him, ‘I’m Brendon, your new neighbour. I’m renting from Mr Nicholson. Isn’t it terrible what happened to him? Lying on his floor for a week before anyone found him. But it’s a lovely old house, isn’t it? This is such a nice street, except those leaves give you a lot of sweeping up to do. I hope I’m not interrupting anything, but did you know today was Good Neighbour Day? Well, I thought, what a stroke of luck you coming home today, and giving me an opportunity to get to know my new next-door neighbour. I’ve been up and down the street today and said hello to everyone. What a lovely bunch of people! Did you know that Mrs Gardener at number 26 was turning eighty today? God bless her. I told her she didn’t look a day over sixty and she giggled like a schoolgirl. Poor Lorrie Clements in number 42 isn’t doing too well, though. Broke his hip last year and has been on a walking frame ever since. I told him he could call on me if he ever needed anything, messages done, a lift to the shops. Just give us a ring anytime, I said… So, they tell me you’re a writer. How interesting! I’m sure I’ve read a couple of your books. I’m a bit of a horror fan myself. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, James Herbert. I’ve read them all. Look, while I was talking to everyone anyway, I thought I might hand out these Neighbourhood Watch leaflets. I was so surprised to hear there was no Neighbourhood Watch on this street. I mean, we don’t want what happened to poor old Mr Nicholson to happen to Lorrie or Mrs Gardener, do we? So I thought I’d do something about it. I’ve got a bit of time on my hands, now I’m retired. I’m holding a meeting at my place on Tuesday night. You will come, won’t you?’
By then the wind had left my sails and all I could do to get rid of him was to take one of his leaflets and say I’d come to his bloody meeting if I had the time. My PC was beckoning. But when I sat down to try to rewrite what I had lost, every single word I had written had disappeared from my mind into the emptiness of that blank screen.
It was the first of many calls. Red Cross Calling, Red Shield Appeal, Good Friday Appeal, Oxfam, Heart Foundation, Children who Care. Brendon was into all of them and all of them warranted not only an insistent ringing of the doorbell, but also a long, friendly chat to explain to you why the charity was so important and where all your money would go. Brendon was also an indefatigable ‘community builder’. Neighbourhood Watch was only his first step. Next he was organising a petition to have speed humps put in the street. He became a mentor in the local primary school and started a safety house program. Then there was the book group, a men only book group ‘because the girls already had one’ and which he just knew would be ideal for me. And to top it all off, there was the street party where the ‘girls’ would bring a salad, the ‘boys’ would do the barbecuing and the children would wear fancy dress and win a prize.
I tried everything to get rid of him, but the man was impervious. I was rude, I was sullen, I refused to make donations, I never turned up at any of his events, all to no avail. In fact, my resistance only made matters worse. It convinced Brendon that I was suffering from some kind of agoraphobia or depression. He adopted me as his pet project and set about becoming my special friend.
The doorbell began to ring day and night, no matter how many times I explained to him that I was a writer, that my house was my place of work and that even if I seemed to be just sitting and staring into space I was actually working. But he just took all my protests as symptoms of agoraphobia. He’d be standing on my doorstep with his wide, toothy smile saying, ‘I could see you weren’t busy, so I thought I’d drop in.’ No amount of rudeness or excuses could put him off. Once or twice I tried to hide from him, pretending I wasn’t home, but he’d go to every window, knocking and calling my name, asking if I was all right and threatening to call an ambulance and the police, until I finally opened the door claiming weakly that I’d been in the toilet. And heaven help me if I ever let him cross the threshold. There was no getting rid of him then. He could sit for hours, consuming cup after cup of tea which he took to making for himself since, he told me with a fond sigh, he felt so much at home in my kitchen.
My book was progressing at the rate of about a paragraph per week. The brilliant idea I’d had on the plane had fizzled out to nothing. And my publishers were on my back. I was beginning to believe that if I didn’t get rid of Brendon soon, I’d never write another book. I wish I could say that it was a stroke of genius that finally gave me a respite from his attentions, but it was a sheer fluke.
He caught me one afternoon watching a DVD of one of Stephen King’s stories in a desperate attempt to find some kind of inspiration. But in this case I found myself identifying too closely with the Johnny Depp character who was suffering from writer’s block, too. I was about to turn it off and stop the agony when Brendon came in the back door I had stupidly left open.
‘Wow,’ he said, dropping onto the couch beside me, ‘Sat’dy arvo at the flicks. I wish I’d brought some Jaffas.’
And so we sat watching the film. The sight of Johnny Depp reminded me of my last wife. She had a quite a crush on him and I could see what she saw in him. During a quiet moment in the film I said, ‘My last partner used to say that no matter how hard that Johnny Depp tries to look dowdy, he just can’t help being so beautiful. He does have this kind of unearthly beauty about him, don’t you think? Like one of those androgynous angels in a Renaissance painting.’
I was lounging back on the couch, with my legs crossed and my arm along its back. I felt Brendon stiffen beside me, then get up very carefully. ‘Well,’ he said with forced cheeriness, ‘we can’t all sit around watching the telly. Some of us have got things to do. Sorry I can’t stay and chat.’ And he was out the door in a record twenty-five minutes and thirty seconds after he arrived.
I stayed on the couch for a few minutes, not daring to move, not daring to breathe, expecting him to come back any moment with a ‘just joking’. But he didn’t come back. Not that afternoon, not that week, not for several weeks. Not for several weeks of quiet bliss. Oh, how I think back on them with nostalgia for a brief golden age.
I think that time was the most productive of my life. Suddenly ideas were crashing together in my mind in a frantic attempt to spill themselves onto the page. It all came together, Brendon with his neighbourhood projects and the urban witch, in a thriller about our cities being taken over by evil forces disguised as benevolent community programs. It was brilliant. It would engender the biggest conspiracy theory of all time. It would outsell The Da Vinci Code. I’d be the new Dan Brown. All my old books would be reissued and they’d take over the best seller list. I’d be made. I’d be rich. I could stop writing popular rubbish, go back to writing literary fiction and win the Booker Prize. And I could buy myself a deserted island.
So what was it that made me break the spell? After Brendon’s ministrations I would never have thought I had a modicum of humanity left. Maybe it was because that woman got my back up with her neo-feminist twaddle. Apparently Brendon’s men only book group violated some equal opportunity law and since I was the only man in the street who hadn’t joined it she had come round to enlist my support to have it closed down. Would I add my name to a letter she was writing to the local paper to protest against it?
Well, I let her have it. I found myself defending Brendon and his efforts. Why couldn’t a group of men get together and talk about books? Women did it all the time. I overrode her protests that men weren’t actually excluded from women’s groups. Not officially perhaps, I told her, but in reality what hope would a man have in one of their book groups. As far as I was concerned, males were being left behind these days, especially culturally and intellectually, so they needed affirmative action if they were to keep up. If that meant men only book groups then good for them. And furthermore the books I wrote were aimed at male readers. It was in my own interests to encourage men to read. I sent her packing, not only refusing to sign her letter, but threatening — no, promising — to write my own letter to the editor in rebuttal to hers.
The day the local newspaper was delivered, I had just settled down in front of my computer, re-read my last chapter and opened a new chapter, when the doorbell rang. I sat still, wishing the caller away. But the doorbell rang again and there was something about the persistence with which it was ringing that told me there was no point pretending not to be home. My peace was shattered.
Brendon was clutching the newspaper, fighting back tears. ‘How can I ever thank you? This… this is brilliant. I could never have put it so well. I’m so sorry about the way I acted that day. I’m… I’m not really a man of the world, and… well… what can I say?… I… I… was shocked… you coming out with it like that. But I’ve had a good hard think about it, and I’ve realised what an idiot I’ve been. I mean we’ve been friends, for how long? And how many hours have we spent together? I’ve been in and out of your house, day and night. And you’ve never put the hard word on me once. I should’ve realised that I could trust you. I should’ve known that it was because you felt so comfortable with me that you could say what you did. And I went and betrayed your trust by jumping to conclusions like that. Surely a… a man of your persuasion can have a male friend, just like all the rest of us. Isn’t that why I started the book group? To promote friendship between men. And after I read this… Look, you’ve just got to come to our book group meeting tonight. Give us a little talk on your ideas. I’ve already had a couple of the blokes on the phone asking me to come over and invite you. You will come, won’t you? And you can trust me. I won’t breathe a word of… you know what… to any of them. They need never know. Look, do you mind if I come in for a cuppa. I’ve got a proposition to put to you.’
Apparently my letter had given him a wonderful idea. The two of us could start a nationwide movement of men only book groups. Between my name and writing skills and his organizational know-how we couldn’t fail. I did my best to put him off, explained to him again about deadlines and publishing contracts, and finally made him see that I was much too busy to get involved in such a scheme. Crestfallen, he backed off. I assuaged my conscience by promising to go to his book group meeting that night.
After he’d gone I went back to my computer, re-read my last chapter again, opened the new chapter and stared at the screen. Nothing came to mind. I opened up the folder with my notes, but my notes were only ever rather slapdash at best, my plans sketchy. I made a stab at the next chapter, but when I read it back it seemed lifeless, pointless. Somehow it had gone. That brilliant concept that would make my fortune had disappeared.
I didn’t give up straight away, of course. Day after day I went back to the screen, stared at it, pecked at a few keys, erased the few words I’d written, tried again. I began to hear the doorbell with relief, even listening for it. More and more, when I couldn’t bear to just sit any longer, I found myself wandering next door to have a cup of tea with Brendon. At one kitchen table or the other, I would sit and listen while he talked on and on about the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Children’s Hospital, Oxfam, the Heart Foundation, Children who Care; about the mentorship program, the safety house program, traffic problems, the book group. But I heard very little of it. Through it all there was only one thought that seemed to go round and round in my head, to haunt me without mercy: I’ll never write another word, I’ll never write another word, I’ll never write another word…
© Pauline Montagna 2013
Read more of Pauline’s Short Fiction
Originally published at http://www.paulinemontagna.com.au.