It's a Tuesday morning, it's raining and I'm heading to work: three excellent reasons not to be cheerful. I've been trudging along the road for a few dejected minutes when a car pulls up beside me. For a moment, I wonder if the driver might not be some psychopath with a penchant for abducting and garrotting early-morning pedestrians on quiet hillside roads, but quickly realise that it's my next-door neighbour. He and his wife, a newly wed couple in their late 20s or early 30s, moved up here a year or so ago, and we keep meaning to have them over for a barbecue or drinks but never seem to get around to it. This may be because our house is a child-wrecked midden.
Before they moved in, we had the charming Phil (as in Phillipa, maybe Philomena, Phyllis?) and Norm next door. Both in their 80s, they'd bought their plot more than 50 years earlier for about four dollars, then built up the place with their bare hands, raised a family and were now spending their days looking after their immaculate half-acre, sitting out on the verandah feeding the birds, and counting their blessings. In terms of physical and mental sharpness, these two put me to shame. And yet, having endured bushfires, floods and the myriad tribulations that five decades of human existence will put your way, it was our moving in that drove Phil and Norm to sell up. Now my new neighbour (well, OK, not new, but what's a year or two when your intentions are good?) is driving me to the station. I like this man. He has gentle eyes, and he has asked me how I'm going, which allows me to moan about how I lost my phone on the street the other day, a modern tragedy. "Well, I can go one better than you," he claims with a wince. "My wife's left me and I'm losing the house." Oh no. That's terrible. I'm really sorry. These are the tremendously useful things I have to say as he relays his tale of sudden and bewildering rejection, before I hit on the sage, "Well, at least it's happened now and not a few years down the track when there could be children involved ..." at which point we reach the station.
A couple of weeks later, I have completely failed to follow through on my suggestion that I take my neighbour down to Oscar's Alehouse one of these nights, and I can see from the vans loading up in the driveway that he's on his way out. I have missed an opportunity to provide succour to a fellow human being in his hour of need. And now I notice a big For Sale sign outside the next house along. The place belongs to another young couple, who moved in around the same time. I've said hello to them in passing, they seem nice, and now they're going. What's happening here?
Around me, gum trees loom, shimmer and gently sway. They've seen it all before. People come and go. For these custodians of the hills, even Phil and Norm's 50 years is but a fleeting trifle. But I am not a tree. (I did play one in a school play once, rather well, as I recall.) No, I am a human being, capable of offering companionship, empathy and affection. I will greet the next new neighbour with flowers, a basket of home baking and a promise of friendship. I wonder how long they'll last?