From the Archives: Neighbourhood alert

“Never fall out with your neighbours”, my wise father once told me. I’ve done my best over the years, but it’s not always that easy. I remember shaking the hand of a new neighbour years ago, as a form of welcome, only to be told by that ‘we’re not really neighbourly types’. These people have since become ‘good neighbours” in the best sense of the term. Other neighbours who I once enjoyed a ‘good chat’ over the fence with now correspond only by email. It’s all very puzzling. “Never get a reputation as a nosy neighbour” was another of Dad’s favourites. That too has proved quite challenging.

So there I was – working at home as one of the most severe winter storms I can ever remember in Auckland raged outside. Happening to glance towards my neighbour’s property I was startled to see a classic Crimewatch  gem – a burglar caught in the act. Surely not in my neighbourhood, which enjoys the lowest crime rate in the whole of the Auckland region!

Careful to avoid being seen I looked again. There was a ‘Causasian man of medium build / medium height’ wearing one of those distinctive ‘beanie hats’, moving from window to window in an attempt to open one of them. He then moved to my neighbour’s tool shed, seemingly unaware that he was under active surveillance. When he emerged he headed straight for my neighbour’s  back door. Perhaps he’d found a key? I didn’t need reminding of what a ‘good neighbour’ would do – call the police.

However, before I could do anything, the ‘burglar’ emerged carrying a large object under a blanket. Perhaps he was heading for a waiting get-away car? Ever-so-carefully I opened my side door and crept down the driveway. The fact that it was blowing a gale didn’t trouble me. Sure enough there was the car, complete with the ‘burglar’ loading the loot. Somehow he didn’t see me. What if he had?

Being by inclination a note-taker, I carefully noted down the car’s registration number. Job done, I now needed to call in the professionals. The ‘111’ call centre responded promptly. ‘A police car had been dispatched and would arrive within 10 minutes’. The operator thanked me for my efforts. The car’s number would be ‘especially helpful in tracking down the offender’.

Within a few minutes a police cruiser arrived with all its bells and whistles in operation. Enjoying for the moment my good citizen status, I gleefully told the officer what I had seen and then accompanied him around the crime scene.  “If only more neighbours were like you”, was his parting remark. Within an hour, the police called to tell me that they were waiting outside the offender’s home in a suburb not too far from mine. I was beginning to feel like something of a ‘special agent’ albeit an honorary one. I waited for updates but received none. Why should I? I had done my duty – end of story.

Hours later my neighbours arrived home. Surely they had been contacted by the police? I was desperate to know but fortunately my father’s wise counsel kept me at home, albeit impatiently. Some time later I heard footsteps, followed by a ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ on the door. It was my neighbour carrying a large bottle of wine. ‘Just a little thank you for being such a great neighbour’.

I remember beaming with self-satisfaction. “Only one problem” they said.  “The burglar was my step-son. Silly bugger had forgotten where we left the key. Trust him to dress and act like a burglar”. I remember shuffling uneasily and turning bright pink. “Don’t feel embarrassed – you did the right thing” they reassured me. I wasn’t so sure.

Since then I’ve enjoyed a great relationship with those neighbours. They always tell me when they are going away and who may be coming to the property in their absence. I seldom see the stepson. When we do bump into one another his demeanour is frosty, to say the least. Surely he didn’t spend time in the police cells?

Quite some years ago another of my neighbours was burgled, this time by a real thief. When the police asked me whether I might have seen someone behaving in a suspicious manner on the day in question, I was quick to point the finger at a group of unpleasant, unemployed young men who roamed the neighbourhood at that time.

“You’re not the first person to identify them as likely suspects. However, we have doubts that it was them given the items that were stolen. The only item of considerable value was a life-sized mannequin doll. The other items were all women’s cosmetics.”

That certainly sounded far removed from things of interest to the ‘likely lads’. Perhaps I’d been guilty, yet again, of stereotyping?

“That’s not the only strange thing”, continued the constable. ‘The thief used a lipstick to scribble all over the bathroom mirrors”.

“I’m sorry I can’t be of assistance”, was my limp response. We shook hands and the constable was off down the street.

Some weeks’ later the police had a breakthrough. While rummaging through the boot of a supposedly-stolen car parked in the Auckland CBD, the mannequin suddenly appeared. Apparently, it was so life-like that the officers initially thought they had a dead body on their hands. A short time later the car’s driver was apprehended – one of the city’s legendary transvestites. Apparently, s/he had walked past my neighbour’s house and become transfixed with the figure in the window. The ‘I’ve gotta have it’ urge took over, hence the burglary. The reason for the scribble on the mirrors was never explained.

My back neighbours have proved to be the most challenging over the years. When I first moved in the property was occupied by an elderly couple. The exterior of their house was very run-down and the weeds were as high as the fence between our properties. The couple were fiercely independent. I’d sometimes see the old man walking to the shops in the rain and offer him a lift. He would always politely decline. The woman spoke with an educated ‘upper class English accent’. Sometimes I heard her scolding her errant husband. I used to wonder how she had ended up in such modest circumstances. Apparently she’d been a ballet teacher. I bet her pupils found her terrifying.

Eventually they had to go into a rest-home and the property was occupied by a foul-mouthed grand-daughter and her not-so-nice partner. They quickly cleared the massive weeds and spindly scrubs and proceeded to put all the debris in a large pile.

It was a windy Sunday evening a month or so later that I heard the sound of beer cans. A party was well under-way. To my horror the large heap was set alight, surrounded by drunken party-goers. ‘Whirling cinders’, to use one of Margaret Mahy’s unforgettable expressions, were soon in abundance. Through the fence I pondered what to do. Knocking on their door with a polite request that the fire be put out, didn’t seem to be an option.

My house, built in the late 1860s of heart kauri, was less than 2 metres from the boundary. I feared that it could go up like a tinder-box. ‘Ring the council 24/7 action line, you silly bugger’, I thought to myself. ‘They’ll send an officer to deal with these people.’

“Sorry, Sir, you’ll have to call the fire service. We don’t do fires”, was the operator’s apologetic response. Thankfully, the local fire  commander was much more helpful. “This sounds serious – we’ll be there right-away.”

“I’m not suggesting you need to use a fire engine. Just the sight of you, or one of your officers in uniform, should be enough to bring them to their senses”, was my agitated response.

“Sorry Sir, we always respond to these situations with an engine. That’s our standard protocol.”

Within a few minutes the sound of a fire siren was to be heard. The next thing I saw was uniformed firefighters emerging from the front-to-back hall of my neighbour’s house, complete with one of their huge hoses. The partygoers looked stunned. The fire was completely extinguished in a flash. Then the telling-off began.

“What the hell were you people doing starting an open fire in a residential neighbourhood? Don’t you know there’s a complete ban? You could have easily set the neighbouring houses alight…” and on it went: “We’ll have to take your details. Our legal team will determine whether you should be prosecuted.”

The party was soon over. Angry attendees filled the street. The commander had assured me that my informer status would remain confidential. That said, I guessed that it wouldn’t be too difficult for my neighbours to identify me. Sure enough, their demeanour when we met was never the same.

Fortunately, their tenancy ended a month or so later – in a spectacular way. Apparently, someone had informed the police that they were running a ‘tinny house’. A police raid followed and they ‘were history’, so to speak.

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Brad Page is a house husband with experiences to share.