The Neighbour

Orange chrysanthemums drooped over the edge of the metal holder in the blazing sun. Larry sat on his knees, bit his lip and stroked the grass.

‘Where are you now, Mum?’ he whispered. He knew part of her was beneath him in an urn. The part he’d found flat on her back in front of the washer dryer, her skin flaccid and grey, blankly staring. But her real self, the one who had made his bed, cooked him lasagne and folded his y-fronts for thirty years—she had migrated into the ether.

The only thing Larry could do in the kitchen was open cans. The washer dryer was a mystique of silver buttons and repetitive beeps. In those first weeks, grief hummed in his ears and the world looked bleached.

Late one morning there was a rap on the door. Larry opened it to a young woman in a fuchsia dress with gleaming dark skin and a waterfall of black hair over one shoulder.

To his bewildered expression she said. ‘I’m Anjali.’

He was silent, fixated on the way her dress outlined a curvaceous hip.

‘From two doors up? I used to do the ironing for your mother.’

‘Oh.’

‘Aren’t you going to ask me in?’

‘But I don’t know you.’

The woman pursed her lips. ‘Your mother asked me to check on you, if anything happened to her. Since you don’t have any relatives.’

Larry stepped back. ‘Come in then. I need help with the washer dryer. I don’t have any clean underpants.’

Anjali made her way to the laundry as if she’d been inside before. She loaded the machine and pressed a few buttons.

‘It’s normal load, then medium water, here, see?’ Larry stared out the window at a lorikeet perched on his mother’s camellias. It bobbed its head at the white flowers and extended vivid wings. Beady eyes seemed to look straight at him. He drummed his fingers on the door.

‘I can come and help with this, once a week, and the ironing. Just until you’re back on your feet again?’

‘Yes. Thank you.’

That night Larry lay on his back, the sheets wrapped like a vice around his legs. The trees whispered outside and cicadas shrieked. He couldn’t remember his mother’s voice, nor the exact colour of her eyes. Yet he recalled her words.

‘What are we going to do about you, love? I can’t live forever, then what?’

He wailed. Tears collected in the hollow at his neck and snot blocked his nose.

***

The following week Anjali arrived carrying two full plastic bags. A small boy peered out from behind her legs. A riot of black curly hair and the smile of a pixie.

‘This is Garv. He’s usually at kinder, but not today. I’ve brought you some food.’

Garv raced through the house, picked up ornaments, put them down and peered beneath curtains. Then he seemed to tire and sat on the sofa, drumming his heels against the upholstery.

Larry stood in the middle of the lounge room with his hands clasped in front of him. He could hear the opening and shutting of the fridge as Anjali put away the groceries.

‘You Mum’s dead?’ Garv traced the pattern of lilacs on the sofa.

‘Yes.’

‘What she like?’

‘She was strict, but a very good person. She looked after me.’

‘You a grown up. Why can’t you look after yourself?’

Larry flushed and rocked on his heels. At that moment, Anjali entered the room and frowned at her son.

‘Garv, what did you say to him? Are you being nice?’

Larry spluttered a laugh. ‘It’s okay. He just wanted to know about my Mum.’

‘There’s some bread, ham and cheese in the kitchen. Can you make a sandwich?’

‘I think so.’

‘Great. I’m going to tackle the ironing. Is it all right if Garv stays here?’

He nodded and watched her pad out of the room.

‘I’m going to play a game on the TV. You want to watch?’

Garv ran a forefinger along the neck of his mother’s prized glass swan, eyes wide.

‘Don’t touch.’ Larry jutted his chin out.

‘Is so pretty.’

‘Don’t touch.’

The boy sat on his hands and pouted. Larry turned on the TV and the PlayStation. The roar of cars and cheering crowds filled the room, then the countdown.

Larry was good at this game. He could sense Garv’s admiration as he executed perfect hairpin turns and overtook other racers. He rocked in tandem with the car.

The boy tiptoed over and sat in his lap. His weight reminded him of the spaniel he’d had as a child who had curled up on him. Garv’s hair smelt sweet and his arms were dimpled.

‘I want a turn.’

Larry handed him the controls. He explained the purpose of each button as his car imploded on a side rail. Game over flashed on the screen.

‘Here,’ said Larry. ‘Would you like to race in Tokyo or Berlin?’

‘Cairo, please.’ The boy turned to face him, his eyes huge liquid pools.

‘Good choice.’

Garv whooped as his car swerved along the track, pyramids towering behind the crowd. The screen was obscured by a halo of hair. Outside the window, a lorikeet flitted from one bush to another, its wings emerald and gold. His mother’s words echoed in his mind. ‘When I’m gone, I won’t truly be gone.’

Could it be?

‘I’m crashing,’ said Garv and stomped his feet on the carpet. An explosion sounded from the speakers.

The bird tapped its beak on the window, stretched its wings and glided away.

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