A BITTER SPACE
Whenever the trainee opera singer next door let rip fragments of an aria, she trilled her top notes so defiantly, a crazed Callas about to be tossed into a vat of boiling oil, that Phil’s windows shuddered, his dog bristled and growled basso profondo, even the chandelier rankled. Segues into the recitative: ‘Mum,’ said the would-be diva, ‘I told you not to drink in front of Amy.’ ‘I don’t,’ protested the thick burr or drunken slur of a Scottish accent over the falsetto of baby wails. ‘Don’t lie to me, Mum! Even now you’re tiddly.’ Sounderama wall to wall, for their echo chamber of a devil’s kitchen hung over Phil’s bedroom. Brow-deep in Tolstoy, all of a sudden he’d be laid low by the high dudgeon of family cross-wires or gunshots sprayed from a cackling tele. Burrowing under the blankets, he’d beat his fists against the mattress, crying over and over, ‘Shut your bloody noise!’ Till he trembled into tears. Abruptly one Saturday, they decamped, sotto voce. Peace breaks out at last in the City of Harmony! sighed Phil and subsided into the suppleness of his bones. Until the following Saturday, when his nostrils twitched. Smoke? Thickening wisps of the stuff, eddying from next-door’s lawn . . . and . . . what’s that racketing? ‘. . . a mild autumn afternoon here at the Optus Oval. A perfect day for the footy. And you join Crackers and yours truly just as . . .’ flames whooshed up from wrenched-down branches, a slew of junk mail and broken-backed packing cases. ‘Ciao, mate. Rino Piccolini!’ boomed a three packs-a-day voice from beneath a Richmond beanie. A ripe tomato of a face was sucking on a ciggie as the grins slid home. But when in stasis, his dial was the dead ringer for Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver – eyes hard as ball bullets with a trace of fire. ‘Hello, I’m er Phil,’ he gasped, for the streams of smoke had looped back to choke his overtures. ‘Did you er know you can’t light fires here? Council regulations.’ ‘No worries, mate. We nearly finished.’ But the terminator, Rino was not; in fact, proved to be a serial constructor of protean shadows that had taken possession of his clouded mind, shaped to the sounds of concussion, for he tirelessly beat base metals and woods into the gold stamp of personal approval. At all hours he’d be hammering, drilling, tamping; or revving the lawnmower, edge-trimmer and buzz saw; or bawling, ‘’Ere, Violanda, the fg lawn’s gone ‘n’ died on us!’ ‘Nuh, it just needs a drop more water, that’s all.’ ‘’Ere, Viol. Vi!’ ‘What?’ ‘Where’s my fg fags?’ ‘How should I know? Don’t blame me! Look on yer fg bench!’ One weekend, Phil detected from his kitchen window, a verandah went up quicksmart out the back of the laundry door. Next weekend a carport was hammered and
planed, cursed and cajoled. Old guttering was clanged down, the new banged up; spouting drilled, snapped, bracketed. Then through the camellias round the front, he glimpsed Rino tossing hand-grenades into a skip docked two metres inside his own median strip. Even his brindle cowered in corners these days, lobotomized almost. Jumping Jupiter! What have I done to deserve such a niggling, noisy, nutty nuisance neighbour! screamed Phil inside his skull. Steady, Phil baby. What lessons am I supposed to be learning here? Is Noise my thing, my penance, my karmaruddyama? He could still recollect with mortification how he’d got on his father’s nerves with his fad of closing doors with exaggerated stealth and hush. Tight with mortification, he poured a little Wild Meadows into the oil burner and coaxed the wick of the tealight candle. O to breathe in the incense so deep and slow to find one’s true self in the incandescent heat of violet flame, for he sat cross-legged on a low stool, spine erect, hands loosely clasped in lap, breathing deeper, deeper, a sag of shoulder to expel stale air, stale pain, then listen to the breathing, listen to the breathing, beginning to float, listen to the breathing, floating, floating, rose petals of rose, the breathing, clouds upon clouds of petals rose, the breathing, the rose, the rose . . . Rrmmm! Rrrm! ‘Back you come, mate! Keep comin’! ‘Old it! Avanti!’ ‘Hell’s bells!’ groaned Phil, corkscrewing to his feet. ‘He’s playing with his blasted toys again!’ A concrete mixer was all a-churn on next door’s driveway. Foreman Rino, in the thick of it with stagy gestures, was giving short, shrill whistles every ten seconds for the truck driver to edge forward, as the gang of holiday-style workers, extended family in fact, shovelled and splayed and smoothed the concrete splattered. At seven o’clock in the morning! Bloody space invaders! Phil was tempted to line up his speakers on the ledge of the kitchen window and let loose a volley of Wagner to scare the living daylights, Mars to intimidate and the 1812 to trumpet his own victory. If it became a war of attrition, he’d even go as far as to buy some particularly excruciating Philip Glass, a sonic Chinese burn if ever there was one, at the risk of sending himself gaga. That night, moonglow wedged by corrugated iron and fascia, Phil was startled to catch a glimpse of Rino strung up on scaffolding, swaying gently, silently in the breeze. Surely, he can’t have topped himself, he dared hope, not without a tinge of guilt, even regret, but permitted himself the vision of cutting down the body and dumping it in the concrete mixer, before paying respects to his sorely missed and much lamented neighbour now impressed in concrete, Hollywood-style; but no, the overalls, he gradually made out, were empty of substance. Whenever Phil peered out the kitchen window, with increasing apprehension, the landscape changed: sprouting a vegie garden framed in net, which soon took on the pretensions of a greenhouse, its tomato forest burgeoning as triffids in chicken poo. ‘Hey, mate, do youse want some shit manure for your tommies?’ One day the lounge burst out onto the verandah, an arch capitalized upon the side-gate, and a workshop over-reached itself into what sounded nights like a munitions factory, above which blustered the redand white-barred flag of Vicenza.
A prisoner of time, that Rino, Phil speculated at the kitchen window, or a prisoner of space, chinking away all day with mallet and chisel, dismantling the barbecue so recently, so proudly, brought into the world, only to make way for a gazebo grandioso. Perhaps he was nailing down memories of his first wife’s betrayal, oh the utter fg pain of it, leaving him with five bambinos to bring up; or forging a ladder of studs to climb to the stars; or glancing blows against walls invisible, the walls of silence, everything hollow. ‘Ciao! ‘ow’s it goin’ then, mate?’ hollered Rino over the fence, his wind-worn, cheery face as rubicund as the Garden Delicious ripening on the verandah table. ‘Just want a quiet life, Rino,’ hinted Phil, knowing he had as much chance as an icicle in Hades. ‘So do I, mate. So do I. But youse know what? Me, I don’t waste no time in the Land of Nods.’ ‘You’ve certainly transformed your bit of space.’ Rino shrugged and pouted, chin up. ‘Yeah, can be done, mate. Lots of hard work. That’s all youse can do, in it? One day I’ll finish all this and we’ll start on yours.’ ‘Oh, no . . . that’s er . . .’ ‘No kidding. I like to keep busy, man.’ Which a light dusting of sandpaper on his cheek confirmed. ‘No, really, I . . .’ ‘Next thing is a big entertainment area up the back. For the whole family, me and Violanda’s. Stage, outdoor dining, canvas roof . . .’ ‘The works.’ Phil sagged against the loquat tree. ‘Terrific idea!’ ‘Listen, you know what youse want to do, don’t you, mate?’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Youse can tell me it’s none of my business, but you’ve got problems, mate.’ ‘What’s that then?’ Although Phil was already bunching his toes. ‘Trees, mate. Trees. Nuh, I’m deadly serious. Soak up the fg water and crack your foundations. Get rid ov ‘em!’ ‘Trees dance in cosmic harmony, Rino. Which is more than be said for humankind.’ ‘You’ve certainly got problems,’ he said, fixing Phil with dark eyes, blackening stares. ‘Big problems. Look at all that paint peeling off them walls.’ ‘Where do I find time?’ ‘Yeah, tell me about it. You gotta make the fg time, mate. Listen, I’ll lend you me electric plane, right?’ Which he did, his fingers cut and gross like soiled batting gloves. ‘Cominciate!’ Phil squeezed the trigger and planed sideways against the weatherboard as the gizmo careered ahead of him on its high-pitched buzz of a whine, shooting flakes of paint at his eyes and mouth, mocking his grim-jawed effort to control the bumping grinder with his weak left hand. Tolstoy would never have known such problems working alongside his serfs. ‘’ow’s it goin’, man?’ ‘It’s taking ages to get the wood really smooth. Too many knots. Guess I’m not fit enough.’ ‘Too much talking, mate. Fg get on wiv it!’ ‘Phew! Need a caffeine fix.’
‘Do it slow, do it proper! That’s what you gotta do. Oh, fg hell. Bugger me rose boxes! Come on, I’ll do it for yer.’ So pristine still those Sunday dawns, freshened by the fluting of bird song in the stand of trees on that vacant block behind both properties – Rino’s fg wilderness, socalled – Phil pegging out washing as contemplative of rents in his undies as the gash in the reefs of cloud, Rino and Violanda sleeping in. Then the laundry door would kick open, a guttural clearing of the throat and a blob of catarrh would flob through the air. Rino would discharge his lungs with a fusillade of coughing and clink the breakfast crockery over the verandah table. ‘’Ere, Vi! Vi-oh! Viol!’ reverberated about the hollow in which their weatherboards squatted. ‘Where’s that fg woman?’ Right there, the buck-kneed Violanda, shuffling and jerking her left leg forward, down the steps, lopsided like a neurotic marionette but with steel in her hips, steel in her mind, lurching up the steps, snatching at the railing, once tumbling down under Phil’s incredulous stare from the kitchen window. ‘Dove sei tu? Van! What youse fg doin’?’ ‘Fg hips!’ she’d whimper. ‘C’mon, luv. Do it slow, do it proper.’ So when Rino hailed the world from his freshly rigged-up, white-painted, Vicenza-embossed verandah, Phil concealed himself behind a pair of jungle-patterned undies, the elastic all but gone. ‘’Ere, Phil! Oi! Phil, mate, you wanna wife?’ Phil masked his embarrassment in jungle green, uncertain of what to rejoinder between upside-down shirts. Until he heard Violanda mutter something in rebuke, a tentative defiance. ‘Only joking, Viol!’ Rino rasped. ‘What’s up wiv youse? Can’t a man even have a joke now wivout youse crackin’ a wobbly? Is that it?’ Phil jumped at the slam of the laundry door and the rearing and kicking of choice Italian. ‘So I’m not fg good enough, eh? Another thing: yer old man’s always criticising my work. Stuff it! Then see how youse like this, yer lazy cow!’ China objects, it seemed, crashed against heavy objects, a stifled gasp of shock. ‘No! Please, God, no! Prego!’ Violanda’s sobbing floundered into the keening of an animal severely wounded and left to die. ‘I’m not takin’ no fg shit from youse, yer fg bitch!’ as he stormed and spat. Slam, slam, rev and brrrm of the Commodore roaring above the summoning of bells to the ten o’clock. In these foul moods of glower and jut of trembling jaw, Rino would take no fg shit from no one. ‘Fg neighbours!’ He hawked and spat over the fence. ‘A la giungla del nostro vicino.’ In self-defence, Phil bought an Italian dictionary and learnt his riposte to the accusation of neglecting his jungle: ‘Il suo deserto.’ He rolled the words around in his mouth, enjoyed their taste, practised them, pronouncing every letter, lento. At first the phrase seemed too lightweight to cause damage, but on second thoughts three harmless words, no matter how badly pronounced, might bring down a vendetta’s curse upon his head. What’s more, he couldn’t find the Italian for ‘Up yours!’
‘’Ere, mate! Mate! Cut your fg trees down! You might have a fg fuego . . . er fg fire. One day everythin’ gone up in smoke. Whoosh! Caput!’ Yes, Phil thought, because you’ve positioned your new turbo-charged barbecue next to my fence. An engineer of soundscape, that Rino. He could manufacture noise-bytes like rivets and clanked about his domain welding tears: for Violanda; even tears of frustration for Phil. At the Last Trump, silence would be deafening. Other times he’d mount the ladder to the roof to test rendering, aerial or guttering, or merely to survey the magic transformation of his own paradiso sintetico, then turn to look down over his shoulder into Phil’s lounge, squishy tomato face splitting with grins, waving a leg in greeting at Phil hunched over Tolstoy and classical radio, thump-thump-thudding away to his heart’s content over the creaking ice of Sibelius’ violin strings strained out through the glass of Phil’s lounge windows. Oh, piss off, Rino, muttered Phil, even as the skywalker’s pebbles of wisdom skipped over his own reflections: ‘It’s all in the preparation, mate’; ‘Answer me this: Can you afford to let this fg house fall down?’; and ‘You wanna take a good hard look at yerself, mate! Most of the time youse is off wiv the fg fairies!’ And you’re emotionally stuck in a time-warp of 1958, drowning in dopamine, thought Phil, as he heard for the umpteenth time a raucous Rino in sing-a-long with the sepulchral Teddy Bears, carving up ‘To know know know him is to love love love him’ in Tool City. Then suddenly gasped with dismay. Was he himself emotionally stuck in 1903 when Sibelius was snowed under with his Violin Concerto? One evening the din from Little Bunnings suddenly lapsed. Violanda found Rino blacked-out beneath his shelves of nuts and bolts in labelled boxes and posters of a leggy, young Sophia Loren in Two Women and Weg’s cartoon of the Tigers’ premiership of ’74. Keeping vigil, Phil saw him stretchered off to hospital. On his return, Rino was as penitent as the young altar boy he’d once been at Ivanhoe. ‘Viol only allows me seven ciggies a day, like. Have to quit slow to do it proper.’ But night-times the fly screen door would kick open and Rino, expelled to the verandah, would draw his last gasper before bed. Occasionally Phil caught its burning glow in the dark while putting the lead on his brindle, but neither men dared break the edgy silence with so much as a breath. Then, as Phil would come to discover next day in among the herring-bone ferns round his side garden, Rino’d flick the butts over the faultline. Had he stamped them out first? Had he left them to catch light to the bushes? But next to the gas heater, surely not, yet Phil found traces of shaggy tobacco frizzed unburnt on a few faded filters. What’s his bloody game then? It certainly wasn’t diplomacy, Phil decided. He immediately ratcheted up to Red Alert and set up a home gym in the lounge. Merely the sight of the newly installed exercise machine empowered him, as the topmost pulley threatened the ceiling. Unfortunately, he could barely lift the top plate of the weight stack and when he mimed firing an arrow on the bullworker he was fearful of twanging off his nose. Worse still, the rowing accessory inflicted a terrible scar, two in effect, for he soon found himself joining the nine-month queue for a double hernia at the Alfred.
For his fiftieth, Rino godfathered a rage with the family, the five families of the five children by his first wife, strung together by fairy lights winking over the verandah and bottles jinking over the fence. Phil, bunkered with Tolstoy, teeth gritted in apprehension, was further assailed by some Tarzan whooping and coughing and bellowing, ‘’Ere, Vio lan da! Viol! I love youse!’ Then suddenly, silence. Sighs of fear. A roar from Raging Bull himself. ‘What, are you crazy?’ said a woman urgently, probably Rino’s daughter. ‘I told you not to set foot on his property. Why did you come in? You agreed to stay in the car! Now look what you’ve gone and done.’ Clink of smashed glass. Arpeggio of shrill screams and whimpering from frightened kids. ‘No, Rino! No!’ shrieks Violanda. ‘Prego, prego!’ Peeping through the kitchen curtains, Phil makes out the raised arm of hardwood Rino holding a broken bottle, held back in a wrestle by two youngish men. ‘Get off my property prontissimo or I’ll scar your fg face!’ ‘Don’t, Rino, please!’ cries Violanda, in shrill waves. ‘Put that bottle down.’ ‘Sta zitti, Viol! ‘E insults me in front of me own wife. In me own house. Fg porco!’ ‘Bastardo!’ yells the intruder, who is spoiling for the fight but restrained, then scuffled away by three men and his woman. ‘Don’t you go, Rino! Stay here!’ ‘Silenzio!’ The verandah is a conspiracy of whispers and sobbing and hugging. Twenty minutes later the sons charge all glasses and play a selection of Golden Oldies. Phil longs to request Silence is Golden, but thinks better of it. Faster, louder, wilder whirl the carousels of sound and ricochets of braggadocio and ‘Vi! Viol, I love youse!’ that they did not hear within spitting distance their cringing neighbour, bent low, picking up traces of Rino’s burnt-out cancer sticks.
Michael Small March 29 – December 27, 1997