He was the ideal neighbour and dangerously attractive, but what secret was he protecting?
The house next door is silent and abandoned now. The tall wire fence is covered in vines and there are holes where the local youngsters have cut their way in. The once trim lawn is a sea of knee-high weeds and the flower bushes have gone wild. Tomcats wail and fight over the back yard. Mynahs and pigeons have colonised the front garden. Possums roam the roof. Jim-from-next-door is gone.
Amy and I moved into our own house two years ago. It’s a two-bedroom concrete house on what was once a Housing Commission estate. A great investment, the real estate agent called it, in a suburb that was shedding its dubious reputation and due to become the next big thing. The house stands on a featureless block in a quiet street. The front door leads directly into the living-room. The bedrooms are a fair size, and although the kitchen and bathroom are cramped, they’re serviceable. As the previous owners had given the house a minimal makeover, there was nothing urgent to be done so I could move straight in. It might not be what I was used to, but it was the best I could afford on what I got from the divorce settlement.
I began married life in a fashionable inner-city apartment, with a promising career in marketing and a handsome stockbroker husband. But my husband’s urbanity disguised an obsessive gambling habit that he fed on the casino floor, as well as in the stock exchange. I naively misread all his lies and evasions, suspecting another woman. It wasn’t until the divorce lawyers started investigating that I discovered how little there was left of our joint assets. And for the first time in my life I was unemployed. The stress had affected my work and lost me my job. I would soon need to look for work again, but I wanted to spend a few months at home with Amy to give her time to settle into her new life, and for both of us to heal.
In the meantime, there was plenty to be done around the house, and I found myself enjoying the work. It was intellectually and emotionally undemanding, yet somehow satisfying. Perhaps it was meeting the nesting instinct that I’d had no time to indulge in my previous life. I even discovered a green thumb I never thought I had.
Amy liked the house, too, especially the backyard, which was a novelty for a child brought up in an apartment. Together we made her a cubby house from the boxes the fridge and washing machine came in. She would sit in there for hours playing with her fashion dolls that had suddenly developed talents for cooking and housekeeping. When she felt the need for human company, she would go into the front garden and chat to the few people who walked past. I kept a nervous eye on her, but she was scrupulous in following my orders never to go out the gate without me.
At night she would crawl into my lap to hear a bedtime story, and though she had long since stopped sucking it, her thumb would creep back into her mouth. She had stopped asking about her father. I feared it was more because she didn’t like seeing me cry than because she had forgotten him. I refused to take her to see him, even if it was a low security prison.
‘Jim-from-next-door wants to cut the lawn,’ Amy announced breathlessly one afternoon. ‘He says I should ask you if it’s all right for me to open the gate and let him in.’
I went to the window and peered out between the old sheets that were still covering them. He was on the nature strip leaning against his lawnmower. At this distance it was hard to make out his face, but there was no missing the perfection of a physique clad only in a sweaty singlet and football shorts. Its very perfection sounded an instinctive warning.
‘Tell him thank you, but no. We’ve got a lawnmower and I’ll be cutting the lawn myself.’
‘No we haven’t.’
‘We will soon. Now go.’
I watched while Amy delivered my message. Jim gave the window a quizzical look, then tousled Amy’s hair and pushed his lawnmower away. The next day Amy and I went to the local Cash Converters and bought a second-hand lawnmower.
After that initial introduction, Amy was full of Jim-from-next-door and talked about him incessantly. Occasionally, I would see him with her. He might only speak to her for a few minutes, but during those moments he gave her his full attention, listening to her with an indulgent smile then leaving her with a quick tousle of her hair. Not even her father had been so attentive. So it was Amy who explained to me the barrage of noise that began waking me up at unearthly hours of the morning — Jim was building an extension.
Jim’s house wasn’t strictly next door, but on the corner facing the cross street. His back fence was our side fence, and my bedroom was on that side of the house. Every morning I would wake to the sounds of sawing and hammering and the rumble of cement mixers. I muttered and cursed and complained about the noise, but knew there was little I could do. Builders always started work early and I could only hope they got the job done quickly. I consoled myself by devising long, witty invectives that I would rain down on young Jim’s head if I ever had the chance. Then one morning, while I was still in my favourite old dressing gown, the front doorbell rang. It was Jim.
‘I just wanted to apologise about the noise.’ He spoke with the slight accent of an immigrant who had arrived as a child. ‘I promise you, it won’t go on much longer. I’ve told the tradies, if they don’t get it finished on time I’ll be docking their pay. I hope it hasn’t been bothering you too much.’ He was wearing a black leather blouson jacket and sported a reddish three-day growth that only accentuated his handsome Slavic features. He wasn’t as young as I’d thought, but very much in his prime. Something solid in my stomach melted.
‘No,’ I said in a quavering voice. ‘It’s been no bother. I like to get up early.’
He smiled, revealing strong white teeth and laugh lines around grey eyes. ‘Great. But if it does get to be a bit much for you, let me know. I’ll give the blokes a few days off.’
‘It’s no problem. Really,’ I said, withdrawing behind the door, suddenly conscious that my dressing-gown was missing a few buttons.
‘I’ll see you around, then.’ And with a wink he walked off.
I shut the door and watched him from the window, holding my breath. He turned as he bent to open the low front gate, and I swear he winked again.
The next time I saw Jim I was on my front lawn, close to tears and trying to get my lawnmower to start.
‘Can I have a go?’ he said, stepping over the gate.
Beyond caring, I shrugged and stepped back. ‘Be my guest.’
He worked on it for half an hour before he finally straightened. ‘It’s got me beat. I’ll get a mate of mine to take a look at it for you, but I think it’s had it.’
I swore under my breath.
He grinned. ‘Tell you what, why don’t you let me mow your lawn. I’ll just come over whenever I do mine.’
I tried to avoid the lure of that smile. After my capitulation at our last encounter, I had been castigating myself for my weakness. Whatever Jim’s attractions, I knew it was too soon to let anything happen. ‘It’s all right. I can get someone to come in and do the lawns.’
He shook his head. ‘Why waste your money when I’m right here? It won’t take me a minute. Honest.’
It was hard to see the point in resisting any longer.
He looked around before leaving. ‘And while I’m at it, I’ll prune those trees for you.’
Jim must have been one of those houseproud types that mows his lawn every Saturday, because every week, without fail, and whether it really needed it or not, he came to mow our lawn, trim the edges with a whipper-snipper, vacuum up the fallen leaves, and, if I didn’t send Amy out to stop him, weed the garden. As he paused to drink the cold beer I’d send out with her he’d keep a surreptitious eye out while he listened to Amy’s prattle. If he caught me peeking through the window, he would give me a sly wink. Invariably, he’d send the empty stubby back with an enquiry as to whether I needed something else done around the house. Just as invariably, I’d send Amy back with a polite thank you but no.
When the washing machine hose burst, showering me with a gush of water I couldn’t shut off, it was Amy who ran next door and called Jim before I could stop her. Suddenly the water stopped and Jim came into the laundry, armed with a shifting spanner, Amy trotting at his heels. ‘Took me a minute to find the mains. You all right?’ I came back in dry clothes to find Jim changing the washers, with Amy as his willing apprentice.
I couldn’t avoid offering him a cup of coffee after his heroic efforts. We were standing on the rudimentary back porch. Amy was in her cubby house.
‘She’s a great kid,’ Jim said, smiling to hear her teaching her dolls how to change a washer.
‘And a quick thinker.’
He laughed, then gazed across the backyard, lost in thought for a moment.
‘You’re good with kids,’ I ventured. ‘Have you got any yourself?’
‘Yeah,’ he said, taking a sip of his coffee. ‘Two boys.’
‘Hence the extension?’
‘What?’ He frowned at me quizzically.
‘So they can come and stay with you?’ I explained.
‘Oh, yeah.’ He drained his cup and handed it to me. ‘Thanks for the coffee.’
‘Not at all. It’s up to me to say thanks. I don’t know what I’d’ve done without you.’
He smiled. ‘It’s no trouble, really. Anytime. I’m just next door.’
‘I’m lucky that you work from home, then.’ I had observed that he seemed to be at home at any odd hour or day of the week.
‘Yeah. Lucky.’ He nodded but added nothing more.
Suddenly I wanted all my questions answered. ‘So, what do you do?’
‘Who, me?’ He shrugged. ‘You know. A bit of this, a bit of that. Business.’
I made an encouraging noise.
‘Actually I’m looking around to buy into something at the moment. When I find the right one. Anyway, better go. I’m expecting the sparkies any minute.’
But as he made to leave, he suddenly turned back. ‘Maybe I should give you my phone number. For next time.’
‘For emergencies,’ I said, taking back the scrap of paper I’d given him to scribble on.
‘For any time,’ he said, with a grin.
Even after the extension was finished, I never did see any boys visiting. I concluded from their absence and that distant look in Jim’s eyes that perhaps he was estranged from his family. It was a thought that made me feel sad for him, but gave me a guilty twinge of anticipation.
A couple of weeks after the extension was finished, Amy didn’t respond when I called her in to dinner one night, but I had a fair idea where I would find her. She was standing on the nature strip outside Jim’s house, solemnly holding up a spade that was taller than her. ‘I can’t come in,’ she insisted. ‘Jim says I gotta hold onto the spade so that he knows where it is when he needs it.’
Jim was holding up a section of a chain mesh wire fence that reached above his head, while another man packed bricks around its base in a hole dug into the lawn. Jim was bare to the waist above close-fitting jeans, and a film of sweat and dust matted the soft down of reddish hair on his sculpted chest. He came and took the spade from Amy, winking at me over her head. ‘It’s all right, Amy,’ he said solemnly. ‘We’re almost finished here. You go in with Mum and have your dinner.’
‘What are you building?’ I was intrigued, reluctant to leave just yet.
‘A big fence,’ Amy answered for him. ‘For the dogs. Jim’s got two dogs, haven’t you, Jim?’
‘Yeah, my mate’s been taking care of them for me until I could get the fence built. They’re lively buggers. They’d jump over anything lower than this. They’re coming on Saturday. Pop over and I’ll introduce you.’ The smile was a definite invitation.
Amy spent Saturday morning in the front garden on watch. I could hear deep-throated barking as she raced into the house and took me by the hand.
‘The dogs are here, Mummy. Come and see the dogs.’
We stopped outside the fence where we could see that a covered trailer had been backed into Jim’s yard. Inside it the dogs were barking ferociously and the trailer lurched from side to side. Amy leant against my legs and I picked her up, heavy as she was. Jim saw us and waved just as he and his friend opened the doors of the trailer and stepped back. Two huge, thickset Dobermans leapt out, sniffing at the two men, who bent and gave them vigorous rubs. Then the dogs noticed us. They rushed at the fence baying savagely. Amy wrapped her legs and arms more tightly around me.
Jim came up and took the dogs by the collar, pulling them away from the fence. ‘Say hello to Lenny and Tyson.’
At the sound of their names, the dogs became even more ferocious. Amy whimpered and clung tighter.
Jim laughed sympathetically. ‘Don’t worry, Amy. They can’t hurt you from over there.’
Amy had buried her head in my neck and I could feel her shaking.
Jim looked concerned and called to his friend in a foreign language. His friend took the dogs from him and Jim came out to us. He stroked Amy’s hair. ‘Hey, kiddo,’ he cooed, ‘they won’t hurt you, I promise. Come here.’ He took her from my arms and carried her closer to the fence. The dogs were safely tied up on the other side of the yard. His friend was feeding them and they were quiet. Jim spoke to her softly, reassuringly. Slowly Amy relaxed and leant her head against his shoulder. I fought back unexpected tears.
Jim put Amy down and she squatted by the fence, watching the dogs. She was softly chanting, ‘Lenny, Tyson.’
‘Tyson?’ I asked. ‘The name sounds familiar.’
‘Mike Tyson, the boxer.’ He seemed shocked by my ignorance. ‘And the other one’s named after Lennox Lewis.’
‘Suits them. But what on earth do you want with dogs like that?’
Jim shrugged. ‘They used to guard my old business. Building supplies. I couldn’t face putting them down when I sold out. They’re good company when they’re not overexcited.’ He gave a sheepish grin.
‘They’re not going to bark all night, are they?’
‘Nah, they’ll be sweet.’
The dogs had finished eating and started barking again, straining on their leashes towards us. Amy ran back to us, pale with fright. Jim squatted down beside her and looked at her solemnly. ‘Now kiddo, remember what we said? You must never, never go into my yard without me. Do you promise?’
Amy nodded and they shook hands on it.
The dogs lived up to Jim’s promise. They were quiet at night when the streets were empty, but by day they would bay and howl at every movement within earshot. And Amy kept her promise, too. She never went near Jim’s place again.
‘Jim-from-next-door is taking me to the circus,’ Amy announced over lunch.
‘You shouldn’t have asked Jim to take you. It’s not nice.’
‘I didn’t ask him. I just told him it was coming. He likes circuses, too.’
Amy had been on and on about the circus since seeing the poster up at the local shops a couple of days earlier. I knew she desperately wanted to go, but I hadn’t made any promises. I wanted to find out a bit more about it, and my finances were getting low.
Jim came over later in the day while I was planting impatiens around the front gate. ‘Has she told you about the circus?’
I got up and wiped grass off my knees. How was I going to put this? ‘Look, Jim, it’s good of you to offer, but… I mean… I don’t mean to give offence… I mean… I know you’d take good care of her… it’s just… you know… a man alone…’
Light dawned in his eye. ‘Oh, God, no. You didn’t think I wanted to take her by myself? What if she has to go to the little girls’ room!’ Then his eyes softened. ‘I wouldn’t want to go without you, anyway.’
I could almost feel my heart go flutter-flutter. Before I could steel myself to refuse, Amy ran into my legs, hugging them hard.
‘Are we going, Mummy? Are we going to the circus?’
Jim grinned at me knowingly as he tousled Amy’s hair. ‘Of course, we are, kiddo. Aren’t we, Mummy?’
Amy jumped up and down around us. ‘We’re going to the circus! We’re going to the circus!’
It only remained to decide on when.
Amy ran ahead of us, swooping and diving, complete with sound effects, just like the clown she’d loved so much. The stuffed pink elephant she was holding by the trunk flew out beside her.
‘Amy,’ I called after her, ‘don’t go on the road!’
She deftly changed direction and headed back to safety.
Jim laughed. ‘I think she enjoyed that.’
‘I think she did.’
‘I wish I’d been able to get that teddy bear for her.’
‘She loves the elephant.’
We stopped. Amy had found a small park and was running around it in figures of eight. She’d added gunfire to the engine noises.
‘What about you?’ Jim asked. ‘Did you enjoy it?’
I was reluctant to tell him how much. I’d felt like a teenager out on a first date. I was used to much more sophisticated entertainment, but not to having so much fun. I nodded, keeping my eyes on Amy, so as not to meet the look I could hear in his voice. ‘Yes, I did.’
Amy noticed us at last, ran around us a couple of times, then led us back to the footpath. Jim and I followed in silence until my front gate came into view. It was time for the little speech I’d been rehearsing. Amy was running around our front lawn. I called her over. ‘Now, sweetheart, what should you say to Jim?’
She took a deep breath. ‘Thank you for taking us to the circus, Jim. I had a very nice time.’
Jim laughed. ‘My pleasure, young lady. We must do it again sometime.’
Amy’s eyes widened. ‘Can we? Can we go again tomorrow?’
‘No, Amy. Jim was just being polite. Maybe next time the circus is in town.’
‘Bum!’ Amy said and went back to running around the lawn.
Jim was still laughing.
I cleared my throat. ‘Ah, Jim. I was wondering. Would you like to come to dinner sometime?’
Jim stopped laughing and looked at me. He nodded. ‘I’d like that.’
‘Is Friday night OK?’
‘Friday night’s perfect. I’ll bring a bottle of wine.’
‘That was great,’ Jim said softly, aware that Amy was asleep just down the hall. ‘I haven’t had a decent meal like that since… well, not in a long time.’
We were just inside the front door.
‘Maybe we could make it a regular thing.’ What was I saying? Damn that wine.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Yeah? I’d like that.’
‘Next week?’ I opened the door.
‘I’d love to, but I’m going away for a few weeks.’
Why did my heart sink? ‘Oh, a holiday?’
‘No such luck. Business.’
And why was I so relieved? ‘Can I…feed your dogs, or anything?’
He came close. ‘No, my mate’ll do it. They know him.’
‘Are you going far?’
I could feel his every breath. Inhale, and his chest brushed my breasts. Exhale, and I could feel it warm on my face, the rich, soft scent of wine and cigars.
His face came down to mine. ‘Your perfume,’ he breathed, close to my ear. ‘It’s beautiful. What’s it called?’
‘Beautiful,’ I whispered hoarsely.
His lips brushed my cheek. ‘Good name for it. Easy to remember.’
His hand came up to my face. His lips touched mine. His tongue brushed my teeth. I held my breath.
He moved away. ‘Next time, ha? Good night.’ And he was out the door, his shadow disappearing down the path away from me.
Next time, ha? The words reverberated through the weeks. Next time. They repeated and repeated through long sleepless nights, echoed in restless dreams, left me staring into the distance in the light of day. Next time. Why hadn’t I asked him exactly how many weeks he’d be away? How long would it be before next time? Next time. No, I told myself, stop this. There wouldn’t be a next time. I couldn’t let it happen again. It was too soon. I hardly knew him. But it wasn’t my rational mind that my dreams were heeding.
Four weeks after Jim left, an Australia Post card was left in the letterbox. An international parcel was waiting to be picked up. My heart jumped even as I told myself it wouldn’t be from Jim. I deliberately waited until the next day to go to the post office. Amy jumped up and down with excitement when I told her where we were going. She had no doubts who it was from.
The parcel was quite large and carefully wrapped and labelled. It seemed to emit a scent of flowers.
‘Is it from Jim?’ Amy asked as we carried it home.
The return address was baffling — a strange name and a Bangkok hotel. ‘I don’t know who it’s from, sweetheart. It’s from someone I’ve never heard of. A Mr Lenny Tyson.’
Amy giggled. ‘You know who it is, Mummy. It’s the dogs. It’s the name of Jim’s dogs. I told you it was from him. I told you.’
I smiled. It was just like Jim, to make even the return address something Amy could enjoy.
At home Amy hovered beside me as I cut through the several layers of wrapping — paper, calico and vacuum-packed plastic — and came to the cardboard carton inside it. With every layer stripped, the scent became stronger and stronger.
Amy giggled again. ‘The box smells like you, Mummy.’
Inside the carton we found a large teddy bear, safely shrouded in plastic bubble wrap. Amy grabbed it and sat down on the floor to rip its wrappings off. What I found underneath it brought tears to my eyes. It had once been a boxed bottle of Beautiful perfume. The box, damp and oily, fell apart in my hands, releasing a pungent odour too strong for pleasure. The lovely, sculpted bottle inside was empty. Every drop had leaked out. The hand I brought up to wipe the tears away reeked of it — of both happiness and disappointment.
‘Don’t cry, Mummy. He didn’t mean to spill it. We can ring him up and ask him to send us a new one.’
And then it happened — the banging, Amy’s screams, the front door flying open, the shouting. ‘Police. Put down your weapons. Hands in the air. Down on the floor. Now.’
I was shoved hard in the back, my face was pushed against the rough carpet. Amy’s screaming filled the air.
‘For chrissakes will someone shut the sprog up.’
Amy’s screaming got louder.
‘Get the mother up, then, if that’s what it takes.’
I was pulled roughly to my feet. Amy clung to my legs, her screams subsiding into convulsive sobs. I fell to the floor beside her and held her tight, taking more comfort from her sobbing form than she could get from my shaking body.
‘Right. That’s better. Now we can get down to business.’
The one talking was about forty with a mean, craggy face and a stocky build that put a strain on his bullet-proof vest. Behind him were three other plain-clothed police, all in vests and carrying rifles. A team in black with helmets and high-powered weapons were working their way through the house. Their ‘Clear. Clear,’ echoed and stopped abruptly.
‘Get the soccoes out of here,’ the leader rumbled. ‘I told you we didn’t need them.’
One of the men behind him moved, spoke to the leader of the helmets and they all went outside.
‘Now, you,’ he said to me. ‘Pam, get her up and sit her on the couch.’
The one that must be female, with a name like that, picked me up by the shoulders and threw me onto the couch. Amy crawled up beside me, the teddy bear still tightly clasped in her hand. Pam took a chair, turned it around and sat in front of me, smiling at me unpleasantly.
The leader stood over me. ‘Right, then. What have you got to say for yourself?’
I forced the words out through a dry throat. ‘You’ve made a mistake.’
‘Have I?’ He bent down and put his face close to mine. I could smell tobacco and hamburger. Amy pressed up against me. ‘Your husband’s in jail, isn’t he? Embezzlement.’
‘That’s got nothing to do with us.’
‘Hasn’t it? It looks to me like the perfect motive.’
‘Motive for what?’
He leered knowingly at me, then went to the table, picked up the empty carton and took a deep sniff. ‘Bet you thought you were real smart, using that trick with the perfume bottle. But our little doggies are smarter than you. They could smell heroin in a perfume factory.’
Is that what this was all about? Had the smell of the spilt perfume triggered some kind of false alarm? There was nothing wrong with the parcel. It was just a present that got broken in transit. A silly accident. That’s all. The police were there because of a sad, silly little accident. ‘Your little doggies are barking up the wrong tree.’
‘So, who’s this Lenny Tyson?’
‘I’ve never met him. A secret admirer maybe.’
‘A secret admirer with a false name and a false address? We checked him out.’
I was trying to keep calm, trying to keep lucid for Amy’s sake at least, but it was all crazy, absurd. The name had been a joke. Was it a crime to use a false return address on a parcel now? ‘You’ve put two and two together and got five.’
‘Five’s a good number. Who sent the parcel?’
A friend. Someone who cared about us. Someone who’d never put us in danger. ‘I don’t know!’
Pam got up from her seat. The leader put a hand on her shoulder. She sat down and the leader came and squatted in front of Amy. ‘So, what’s your name?’
‘Amy,’ she said in a tiny voice.
‘Is that your teddy?’
‘Who gave it to you?’
‘Which house does Jim live in?’
‘On the corner.’
‘Is that the one with the guard dogs?’
The leader gave me a triumphant leer. ‘More than one way to skin a cat.’ He turned back to Amy and gave her a smile she was too young to see the threat in. ‘Can I see your teddy?’
For a moment she was frozen in fear and then she silently held it out to him. He took it and stood up, tossing it from hand to hand. ‘Is Jim-from-next-door your friend?’ he asked Amy.
‘Is Jim-from-next-door Mummy’s friend?’
‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that.’
He tossed the teddy to one of his minions, who pulled a knife from his pocket. Amy sobbed. I held her tight. He stabbed the knife into the toy’s belly. Amy wailed. He tore the knife down. Amy screamed. He thrust his hand into the bear’s stomach and pulled out a plastic bag full of white powder. My cry joined Amy’s.
It didn’t take them much after that to persuade me to call Jim, and it didn’t take much to get him to admit he’d sent the parcel, to tell me when he’d be arriving. Just the hint of a promise.
They picked Jim up as he landed at the airport. They had had to shoot the dogs to get into his house, where they found all the makings of an amphetamines lab. The trip to Thailand had been to get money for the next phase of the operation, they told me. I got a stream of vicious phone calls until I changed my number. I’m trying to change my address, too, but it’s hard to sell with an abandoned house next door, confiscated as the proceeds of crime and now left to rot until the case is finalised.
We don’t talk about Jim-from-next-door, Amy and I. Amy hardly talks at all now, and never plays in the front garden. Sometimes she sits in her cubby house. I like to think she tells her dolls all the secrets she won’t tell me, about the dreams that wake her up screaming. In my own dreams I’m fighting my way through an overgrown garden until I come to a steep precipice. I fall in sometimes, but I always wake, my heart pounding, before the dogs get me. Then I take Amy in my arms and wait for another day.
© Pauline Montagna 2013
Read more of Pauline’s Short Fiction…