Thursday, June 22, 2006

I used to have very nice neighbours...

When we moved into this house in December of 2004, we were pleased to find ourselves living next door to a very nice family. Two clean-cut, wholesome teens and a puckish, energetic 6-year-old, parents and a sleep-in maid. We didn’t establish any kind of a friendship, mind you…simply introduced ourselves and continued living our own private lives, but they were very nice people and, with the exception of the occasional security gate slam that reverberated through our house, quiet.

A few months back we noticed they were cleaning out their garage and then, in a casual conversation with the teen aged son, it was revealed that they were planning to move in a few months. Nothing more was said, but the big black sacks of discards kept showing up on trash day, and finally one morning we saw a “To Let” sign in the front garden.

We braced ourselves for new neighbours…you can never tell what you are going to get when the house next door changes hands, and we hoped for the best. We live just a stone’s throw from the high school, so teen-aged kids next door was almost a given: we could only hope that the incoming family would make as comfortable a set of neighbours as the outgoing.

After a few days the board disappeared and we naturally presumed that new tenants had been procured and would be moving in shortly. One morning we awoke to the sound of slamming doors next door, chaos in their back garden, and other various and sundry noises. Sounded like moving day. The problem was, moving day seemed to go on forever. Although we never seemed to hear fighting or deafening music, the sounds of slamming doors and other disturbing noises continued—even escalated—and they got earlier and earlier in the morning…and later and later at night. I began watching for the new neighbours to arrive home so I might stop over and introduce myself and have a chat with them, but they were elusive: never did I hear their car enter the driveway or see it leave.

The racket continued unabated. One morning, before the early sun had cracked the hard shell of darkness surrounding the city, banging, shuddering noises came from the house next door, as if someone was beating on the security bars. Inured to their noises now, I did not call the police, but listened carefully for a few minutes, in case any sounds of distress might come over the wall. Quiet soon reigned, but it was not to last. Before I knew it afternoon had crept upon me and the private bus engaged to transport the youngest child to and from school had arrived. From my vantage point at my office window, I could see the curly headed moppet emerge from the bus and bounce his way towards the gate in the front wall, out of my line of sight. He looked amazingly like the kid who had moved away!

It took only a few days of careful listening to the next door noises (as opposed to intentionally tuning them out) to discover that, indeed, it was the same child. In fact, it was the same family! Apparently they had renewed their lease with their landlord and remained in the house.

But something obviously had changed for, the quiet neighbours who occupied the house next door during my first 18 months here have unaccountably changed into a houseful of noisy, door-slamming, window-rattling, pot-banging, peace-fracturing characters who make my bedroom, the windows of which face their house, something less than the sanctuary it once was.

I miss my old neighbours. I wonder where they went.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Winter's Embrace

Winter…7 am and still as dark as the inside of George Bush’s brain.

With the seasons reversed down here at the nether end of the globe, the shortest day of our year falls in June. June 22, to be exact, nearly a fortnight distant. Although the recent days have been bright and clear, there is an unmistakable crispness to the air that lets you know, make no mistake about it, winter is upon us.

The doggies wear their hated jerseys day and night now, huddling together in the fat, cushy doggie bed at night and squirming into the big bed full of warm people at first light. Slim, long-legged Candy, with her curly white poodle cut, wears her forest green knit turtleneck like a supermodel, platinum ears flowing, dark, expressive eyes flashing. Portly Nash, on the other hand, looks like a rotund little white-whiskered professor in his fleecy green-and-grey argyle vest.

The past few nights haven’t been cold enough to turn on the heaters, although we had a cold snap a week or so back that had us all huddled together beneath the fat new duvet we bought on holiday last year. Amazingly, South African houses are built without heating systems…unless you count fireplaces (which are no more numerous than in American homes)…and the winters here can be bone-chillingly cold, particularly with the stiff winds that are an integral part of the Cape Town experience. Those winds are a blessing in the dry, scorching summer months, for they both cool the air and remove air pollution, leaving the area a veritable playground in paradise. In the winter, however, they serve to exacerbate the deep chill.

By the time the gardener arrived at eight the sun had flung itself into the sky, but its light lacked warmth. Time being money for him, Christopher set to work immediately, his breath issuing out in a visible vapour ordinarily uncommon here. The lack of winter cloud cover proved itself a blessing, allowing the sun to grow robust enough to finally warm the crisp air and chill earth. By ten, Christopher’s jacket was draped neatly over a patio chair, his bare arms glistening with sweat as he clipped and snipped the rain-driven recent growth of what was rapidly becoming a small suburban jungle. Only Christopher’s weekly ministrations keep the enthusiastic vegetation at bay.

The afternoon was sunny and warm outside, but the thick brick walls of the house tend to retain the night-time chill. Sans furnace, with only the feeble heat of a fireplace to warm us…and then only in a small circle immediately in front of the hearth…I pondered dinner: what kind of dish can I prepare that will cook all day and warm up the house? The answer was a sudden craving for Texas chili and that truck stop delicacy, the Chili Size. A quick inventory of the cupboards revealed I need a few things, so it was off to the market and, an hour later, a rich pot of chili bubbled on the stove, sending a fragrant heat wafting through the house.

Dark descended upon us as quickly as it had decamped in the morning. At five I handed Christopher his daily pay and a quart of chili, the old mayo jar thickly wrapped in newspapers, and by six, when we sat down to heaping plates of chili, onion, and grated cheddar, the moonless night had returned. Black as bin Laden’s heart, the night hurls itself upon us without even a twilight’s warning, banishing the frail winter sun until it can screw up the courage to bring us yet another pale and pallid morning. It is winter in Cape Town.