Our neighbour has been loping up and down Anderson Street all morning, mostly empty-handed, though once he was purposefully clutching a carton of milk. He’s a retired accountant – and with his solemn moustache, square wire-framed glasses and a revolving wardrobe of collared shirts and slacks, he looks like one. Only his impossibly wide eyes and alarmingly arched eyebrows signal his impassioned second career, as a dogged community activist. He goes to council meetings and makes speeches; sets private appointments with our local MP and other politicians; has the local paper on speed dial. He regularly crosses the city to Camberwell, where a lady types up his petitions and letters of protest for $30 each. (“She’s very good,” he tells me. “If you ever need some typing done ...”) It’s not unusual that I’ll be walking past and he’ll shout “I spoke to Wade Noonan today!” or “they’re starting to listen!” from behind his roses and geraniums.
Two weeks ago, I was walking to the train station when I noticed Keith (not his real name) striding towards me from the railway lines ahead. His face was set, sharply focused in my direction. He crossed the road and opened his mouth, raising an arm to flag me down. Or so I thought. The power walker at my side, in his lycra shorts and gleaming white sneakers, iPod at his waist, audibly sighed as Keith blocked his path.
“We’ve got em now! I’ve ...”
“Not now, Keith.”
“No, no, it’s okay. I have to tell you ...”
“Keith, no. I’ve got my pulse up. Got to keep going.”
“That’s fine. I’ll walk with you.”
With the beatific inner smile of the newly reprieved, I watched them round the corner just ahead of me, Keith just centimetres from the power walker’s side, his moustachioed face leaning into the man’s grimace as he waved him off angrily. Their disjointed symphony of furious monologue and equally emphatic dismissal faded to a hum as I passed the hairdresser’s.
Keith spends much of his time these days crusading on two causes: reinstating the underpass at Yarraville train station and cutting back the buses that cruise up and down Anderson Street. He’s not the only one campaigning for an underpass – there’s a community group headed up by a local trader, too. There have been two accidents at the level crossing on Anderson Street in the past year: a cyclist and a council worker driving a truck have both been hit by trains. (Admittedly, both times the security barriers have been firmly up, and the unfortunate victims have dodged or broken through them.) During peak hour, it’s not uncommon for crowds of commuters and locals to be stranded at the railway crossing for a solid five minutes or more. An underpass would be handy. I’m all for it. I’ve even signed Keith’s petition, which is sticky-taped to the counter at the local fish and chip shop.
I’m very much not on his side when it comes to the bus issue. Yes, many of those buses are empty. But it takes time to attract users to a new service, and until recently, the buses were scheduled so haphazardly (not linking with trains, no buses for two hours at lunch time, no buses after 6pm-ish, barely running on weekends) that they were only useful to pensioners with time on their hands and shopping to do. Or, occasionally, before I moved from the far side of Yarraville: me. I have no car and a lazy streak which sometimes compelled me to skip the 20-minute walk from the shopping strip, in favour of a bus ride that took exactly the same length of time.
I was always amazed at the fortitude of my elderly fellow passengers, as the bus lurched along the back streets and over speed humps, jolting me from my seat as I clung to the steel poles and braced my jarred back. Tree branches were often clipped as the bus spun around corners. There were so few passengers that, instead of abiding by the scheduled stops, you were encouraged to call out when the bus passed nearest your house. At your shout, it would crunch to a sudden halt, sending shopping bags and any standing passengers skidding along the aisle.
Two years ago, when I was working full-time, I got sick. The kind of sick where you don’t really get better after a week at home, and you force yourself to return to work because it’s obvious that this is going to last a while, and you can’t very well not work for weeks. I couldn’t walk very far without pain – and certainly not the distance to the train station – so I was forced to rely on the bus to get to work. I would cross Cruikshank Park in the morning dark, my breath melting into the surrounding mist as I powered through the gloom towards the lights of Somerville Road. There, I would huddle outside the Hungry Jacks and make small talk with the teenage boy who caught my bus every day at the same stop. (“Don’t walk through the park,” he warned me. “Girls have been raped in there after dark. And my sister has friends who’ve been followed by guys who’ve exposed themselves.”) The bus was inconvenient and irregular, and the drivers were mostly terrible, but it meant that I got to work each day, through the six weeks that I was ill. And every time Keith starts growling about the buses, I wonder how I would have continued to work without them.
I don’t have the courage to tell Keith what I think about the buses, though I do politely decline to sign the petitions he brings to our door. I nod and I listen and I purse my lips, but he knows I’m not with the program. I think that’s why he brings up the waste of fuel caused by the empty buses, fixing me with an challenging stare. How can I argue with that? Not long ago, he handed me a photocopied printout with the names, addresses and email contacts for our local member, council members and the transport minister. There was also an example letter that I could write, calling for the bus times to be limited. When I shut the front door and returned to serving up spaghetti bolognaise, F was watching me closely. “Did you tell him he’s wrong?” I don’t think I did, not really. I think I chose good neighbourly relations over my ideals. Who knows when we’ll next need to fetch a football, or when the dog will burrow under the fence into his backyard? And even though I disagree with him, I do like him.
This morning, at 7am, there were footsteps at our window, the dull thud of something hitting the verandah, the metal creak of the front gate being latched, then a slow fade of steps, now on the footpath.
Some hours later, at 9.30am, The Husband slapped the Sunday Herald Sun on the kitchen table, on top of yesterday’s Age.
“What is THAT?”
“I’ve got you the Herald Sun.”
He dropped the charade.
“It was on the doormat when I opened the front door.”
“I don’t know.”
Rewind to January this year: F’s first day back at school. One of his friends was over. The friend’s mother, M, and I sat companionably on my front porch, sipping gin and tonics and ignoring the squeals and shouts from the backyard. My bare legs rested on the wooden railing, the dark green paint peeling beneath my toes.
“I was on The Price is Right today.”
We looked up, startled, towards the open front gate. Keith was halfway up the front path, wearing a navy suit and striped tie – looking unusually formal.
“He-llo,” sang my companion. I heard the alcohol in her voice before I felt it tilting inside my head.
“Hi. I was on The Price is Right today, that’s where I’ve been this afternoon and it’ll be on TV this Wednesday. You should watch.”
“Wow, that’s great. I’ll ... I’ll certainly try.”
He said something about picking suitcases and that he picked one that won him $500.
“I can’t complain about that,” he grinned. “$500, hey? Well, make sure you watch.”
“Okay. Thanks for telling us. That’s great.” We both waved at him as he fastened the gate behind him and moved on, briefcase in hand, to the next house. We heard the gate open, footsteps, and a surprised voice at the front door.
My friend and I looked at each other.
“Is he a sandwich short of a picnic?” she whispered.
“Yes,” I giggled, pouring a trickle of gin into each of our glasses as two small boys crashed through the screen door and spilled at our feet. “I think he is.”
At our dining room table this morning, as The Husband spooned rice porridge into his mouth and I chewed a muesli bar, I spotted Keith lingering outside on the footpath. He put a hand on the front gate, stepped towards the house, then changed his mind and moved away.
“Maybe it was Keith,” I suggested. “Maybe he’s in the Herald Sun today and that’s why he put it there.”
“Should we check?”
“If you want to.”
We couldn’t find him. But it’s still the best explanation I’ve got for why someone went to the trouble of carefully delivering us a Sunday Herald Sun.