The Fence

From the archives

She turned 90 last week, the years growing while she shrinks.

She welcomed us from behind the bars of the grill on her back door, her smile – one part surprise and nine parts scepticism. It said: You remembered – finally.

Her leg, which always gave her trouble, is swollen and bandaged, but in every other way, neither she nor the house she’s lived in for 50 years has changed. The same silvery hair, sensible shoes, and curiosity about little things. The same spiritedness too – and the same hurt, though initially it doesn’t surface.

The last thing she’d want me to do is mention her name – she’s not big on what she calls fuss. She and fuss just don’t go together. It’s why on her birthday she’d threatened her relatives with murder if they went ahead and did anything so fussy as throwing her a party.

They did anyway. Nobody died, and for us she proudly brings out the photographs which show her sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the expanse of her well-mown quarter acre section. She was like that. Give her a gift and she’d shake her head, tell us to take it back. Days later she’d tell you how much she enjoyed it. But no more fuss, alright? she’d threaten, with a hint of mischief in her rheumy eyes.

She leans heavily on a forked walking stick, says she suffers from bouts of dizziness – all of this prompted because we asked her how she’s been. Otherwise she’d never mention any of it.

She  was our neighbour for 15 years, a stand-in granny for our children who used to play for hours with the toy cars and other knick-knacks she kept in a cardboard box. When we first arrived in the street, her husband reached over the low tacoma hedge, shook my hand and said ‘Welcome – name’s Ted’.

I became his DIY apprentice, he my trusted old friend. I’m keenly aware of him as I sit at the old formica table he once leaned on, happily wandering down the avenues of memory while decrying the present. Mrs P used to shrug and get on with her cooking – in their long marriage she’d heard every story, every joke many, many times before.

Things happened quickly after we moved away. Our house was sold and removed to make way for new townhouses. Ted died. Old neighbours shifted to other suburbs or in some cases, rest homes. And a wooden fence went up where once the waist-high hedge grew between our homes.

Sometimes when you listen to children whose parents are divorced you can think they’ve escaped unscathed. And then at some stage, they’ll remember, and the hurts pour out. Mrs P (can’t mention her name – too much like fussing) was like that about the fence. She understood we had to move.

What she couldn’t understand was this two metre partition and the mentality behind it. It hurt – and sure enough she began to talk about it. To Mrs P, this wasn’t just about privacy, but cutting people off from each other. It was un-neighbourly. It impoverished both sides.

“You know, I think there’s new people in there now” she said, though she couldn’t be sure. For all she knew the ‘people’ – not neighbours – might have changed several times. For her generation this fence and all the other equally high versions she’d seen, meant the denial of neighbourliness, of friendship, and the simplest thing: knowing her neighbours.

But then, these days she didn’t know too many of the people in the street. That she  could understand. But the fence – the fence was confirmation that she shouldn’t know some.

She waved us away with a crooked smile and light-hearted mockery over our promises that we’d visit again soon. As we climbed into our car, the wooden fence loomed above us, and I realised it must dwarf her.

But then maybe that’s what fences like this are for.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.