A big truck blocked my driveway yesterday morning. It was here to load up all the earthly possessions of my neighbour of 30+ years and shift them somewhere else. This should be a time for having a beer and a farewell barbecue to chat about all the good days; about having watched our children grow from little kids to parents themselves. A tear in either eye, a staunch man hug, a brave wave and promises to keep in touch wafting into the wind.
But it wasn’t like that. Truth is he hasn’t spoken to me for well over twenty years. Nor I to him, if I’m honest, but he started it. I was the one who actually spoke last when I delivered the final words of our final conversation those 20+ years ago which, to memory, went along the lines of, “ you bring your hose over here, Stew, and I’ll shove it up straight up your arse for you.”
Seemed just a little harmless neighbourly banter to me; even if I had carried it out, a bit of colonic irrigation should not have been unwelcome, I would have thought, given he seemed to have shit on his liver over such a minor little dispute.
I should explain, 20+ years ago, before Helen Clark’s insane reign, it was not uncommon for homes to have an incinerator at the bottom of the garden. For incinerator read: a 44 gallon oil drum with the top cut off then forced down to about a foot from the bottom held in place by a couple of metal rods someone found somewhere to form the base of the incinerator and below that a hole roughly cut out to allow air to suck up and increase the potency of the flame. When the old drum rusted to useless, you phoned a bloke who knew a bloke with a truck (borrowed from his employer who presumably has a need for drums of oil and always wonders what happens to the empty drums) who turned up on a Saturday afternoon with the new one. It cost a slab of beer from memory. What you Post-Clark (=PC) children have missed out on! What fun days they were. Load the drum up with all the newspapers, cardboard boxes and what have you, throw a bit of motor mower petrol on for good measure, drop in a lit match and Bob’s your uncle. In the autumn sweep up dead leaves and throw them on top. I tell you it was very cheap entertainment on a Saturday afternoon and burning a drum full of bits and pieces really is something of a primal-spiritual experience.
Well to most of the world it was. But neighbour Stew was a “health inspector” from the Council. That job title is a euphemism for miserable little interfering gnome. Straight out of the Hobbit, was Stew. I caught him once previously, sifting, uninvited, through the ashes of our incinerator. I calmly enquired what the fornication he thought he was doing? He claimed the immunity of his illustrious position within the Council which apparently gave him the right to enter properties for the purpose of seeking evidence of the burning of toxic substances such as plastic bottles. He delivered this little homily looking exactly like Gollum from the Hobbit searching for his Precious. That’s when neighbour is pronounced nay-boor. But at that point Ava emerged and things got a bit ugly. Things were said.
And it wasn’t only incinerators. Wee Stewie took his responsibilities for enforcing the Council by laws very seriously. We were getting a few kitchen renovations done. Nothing too major and it was only by peering through the kitchen window from Stewie’s side of the house that anyone could see any sign of building activity. Then the building inspector knocked on the door; claimed to have been just walking past and thought he could notice a bit of non-consented building activity down the side of the house, behind the garage, out of view of the street. That could have been the very first Tui billboard, but Kiwis didn’t drink that horse piss back then. Stewie denied all knowledge of how the building inspector happened by our quiet little dead-end street, but what do you think? If it looks like dog shit etc etc.
Talking of dog shit reminds me, we owned a lazy, friendly old labrador called Ben. Even though it was not his specialist subject Stewie was no stranger to the dog by laws either. The result was that our dog became great friends with the dog ranger. She would often ring up at work and tell us she was looking after Ben for the afternoon as Stewie was up to his old tricks again. It turned out that Stewie had invented a sport called dog-fishing. One day he was actually observed hiding behind his hedge throwing a long piece of string baited with a piece of meat onto the street. When a passing dog took interest, Stewie would lure it into his yard, shut the gate and rush inside and, while the dog was distracted with the meat, he would call the dog ranger. Good old section 5.3 of the Dunedin City Council Dog Control By Law, ‘dogs shall not wander onto private property,’ got them every time.
Sam had a birthday party one year and invited two or three hundred of her closest friends. True to Stewie form, the noise control officers turned up with their little headphones and sound-register machines. Unfortunately the party had not reached the noise levels to qualify as a neighbourly nuisance which, to my mind, defeated the whole point of the party. Stew was a fun guy, the life and soul of any party.
Anyway, the reason for the offer of colonic irrigation which led to the 20+ years of silent treatment was that one afternoon, Kilroy style, he had proclaimed his intent and his duty to come over with his hose and extinguish my incinerator which, he claimed, had exceeded the permitted hours as specified in the Council by-laws for the disposal of approved materials by incineration in your backyard 44 gallon drum. He decided against testing my resolve to shove his hose up his bum and so, to drive home the point, my incinerator burned happily into the evening sky in blissful challenge to the appropriate by law. On his side of the fence he must have fumed as much as my incinerator and secretly vowed never, ever, ever to speak to me again. A vow he kept, for which I am most grateful.
But some time after, for a reason I never found out, the Council decided they no longer needed wee Stewie’s health-inspecting services. That was a bit of a dark time for poor old Stew. Enforcing Council by laws was his raison d’etre. Now the strutting little health inspector was stripped of his stripes, his clipboard confiscated and he was ceremonially drummed out of the city council health-inspecting squad. For a Ronin there are few options left as they wander the countryside in shame. But Stew, however, was fortunate to eventually find a new role in another council, this time for the inspection of waterways. So off he would go, of a morning, in his safari suit, armed with his butterfly net and specimen jar to wander the ponds and the rivers of the countryside in search of bits of floating or hidden turd. But, to be perfectly honest, that probably isn’t as much fun as it sounds. It had neither the status nor excitement of inspecting incinerators for molten plastic and kitchens for rodent droppings, but at least it got him out of the house. And it was in the great outdoors that Stew had an awakening and discovered his inner entrepreneur. For out in the countryside he saw wood; lots of wood, just lying around waiting for someone to cut it up into fireplace sized bits and burn it. Stewie had turned to the dark side. If the City Council would not pay him to pour water on incinerators, then he would get in the business of creating the fuel for more and bigger fires. He would fill the skies with the vengeful smoke from Stewie’s well-cut firewood! He bought a little truck, complete with a personalised plate declaring “Wudy1- I do got wood”. That might seem a bit cocka doodle dooey for a wood-chopping turd-scooper but, to be fair, after a dark period in the emotional wilderness, he was now back in the game with his truck continuously loaded up with logs, pallets and assorted bits of scrap wood all ready for the big chop. It was the perfect career for him; having such a low centre of gravity made him perfectly suited to chopping logs and scrambling over stacks of firewood and so, once again, his happy whistling wafted over the fence.
But it wasn’t all work no play for Stewie. When he wasn’t chopping wood and fishing for turds, he knew how to have a good time. He had discovered the thrill of flying model airplanes. Oh how we marvelled at them buzzing around the neighbourhood like angry wasps. I could only watch on in envy at this dashing young man with his flying machines. He took it very seriously and even went away to model airplane flying events around the country with lots of other people of a similar stature, if not age. No doubt, as they sat around the campfire in the evenings after an adventurous day’s flying, Stewie had them in awe with his tales of stalking renegade turds, ‘you get down-wind and sniff the air‘. If they had any doubts before about what they wanted to do when they grew up, they were surely inspired by Stew.
But when I say he did not communicate, I have to admit that he did sort of communicate reasonably recently. I just did not reciprocate. I had started parking my car outside his house instead of mine. I just thought that, since he was such an anal little prick, this might irritate him to distraction. Yes I know it was childish, but what I did not realise was there was, apparently, a Council by law that specified that I park no closer than one metre from a neighbour’s driveway. I was probably 20 centimetres short of a metre. So as if to show me that he was no longer the sort of sneaky little scrotum who would call up the Council, Stew left me this note on my windscreen:
I give him credit for a neighbourly warning of the danger of parking 20 cm too close to his driveway, but the truth was probably that when he phoned the Council they put him on hold for a couple of hours listening to muzak. And the veiled threat to swipe my car as he reversed a trailer full of wood was not to be taken lightly. Whatever, the important thing is that our footpath now has a red paint line on it to help me, in future, maintain the legal distance from his driveway and avoid the wrath of a parking officer who might happen to be passing down this dead-end street in search of vehicles that might be parked within a metre of the neighbouring driveway. Apparently there are no council by laws about painting red lines on footpaths.
So while we may not have been close neighbours over the decades, I had to accept my share of the blame for that. He was a neighbour for 30 years; he was part of my daily life for over ten thousand days and I realised that, in a way, I would miss old Stew. So now, as he drove away for the last time and it hit home to me that I may never see him again; that I may never get to say what really should have been said a long, long time ago, I felt the urge to call out, “Stewie, Stewie……I may not have actually said the words to you before but, Stewie… mate, you are a grade-one little wanker.”