I’ve been thinking about my old next-door neighbour Bob, who is long dead now. (There was another Bob, who worked at the corner shop, but I’ll get to him in another post.) There are a lot of gaps in what I remember but here are some of the pieces in between the gaps.
The time I’m thinking about in particular is when I tried to fly. It was rare in Te Kuiti to see garden stakes being tugged out of the soil and trees bending and blowing, and I distinctly remember thinking, ‘This is a good day for getting off the ground.’ So I tied a beach towel around my neck, like a cape, and lay down on the driveway. I stretched my arms and legs and waited for the wind to raise me up. I don’t remember where my brothers or my parents were. I pictured myself soaring over the bush and the treehut, trailing birds, and my cape swelling as I flew over the school field and kids from school looked up and pointed.
After a few minutes I had failed to take flight. My hands and knees were sore from pressing into the gravel. I picked myself up. All at once the wind died. The sky was the colour of old sneakers. I felt the weight of the towel pulling on my neck. When I looked over at the neighbour’s house I saw Bob grinning at me. Bob was retired, and married to Foofoo. He had been a navy man in the war, and later on he’d worked as a mechanic at Ford Motors. Every morning he came out to sit on a bench near the front door of their white house, and would stay there smoking a pipe until the sun moved away, sometimes a bit longer. He hacked out a cough and shouted, ‘No good, ay?’
I didn’t know how to talk to Bob, but I liked him a lot for some reason. He was mostly deaf and the skin on his throat was yellowish and leathery, like schnitzel. His hands shook badly and were full of veins. He’d tuck his pipe under the heel of his palm, and lean on it. He always wore grey suit pants, and if you sat beside him on the bench as I sometimes did in the mornings, you could see the knife-edges of his knees in the threadbare fabric, and that his wallet beside him was stuffed with dollar notes, like monopoly money. I wish I could remember what we talked about when we sat there, but I get the feeling it was probably me who did most of the talking. Once, when I returned home from sitting with Bob, my brother Neil was waiting on the driveway. He’d been listening. ‘When you talk to Bob, don’t say what,’ he reprimanded me. ‘Say pardon.’ Encounters with Bob often ended this way, with the sense that I was in way over my head, but still I persisted in sitting by him.
Bob was old in a way I couldn’t understand. Once he’d driven his car straight through the front wall of his house and into the kitchen. The most unusual thing about this was that no one seemed all that surprised. It just became a thing you measured time by – the time before Bob drove the car into the house, the time after Bob drove the car into the house. Bob’s wife Foofoo had blue hair and wore pastel jumpers and pearls. For the purposes of describing her, I wish she’d had other distinguishing features. She painted watercolours – one of them was hanging in our lounge, some watery trees and a watery hill. I was nervous of her, because once when I’d stayed at her and Bob’s place while my parents were away, I’d held a silk cushion up to the glass door of the fire to warm it, and when I took it away, the silk was all burnt off. I’d hidden the cushion behind another cushion and been nervous of Foofoo ever since. She seemed like someone who could get worked up easily. She worked at the town library and was known as an ‘intrusive librarian’ – she’d refuse to let students take out the books they wanted if she thought the material was inappropriate. Apparently even the school principal, Mr Cowley, had got into arguments with her. My mother liked to tell me about when she brought me home from the hospital as a newborn, and Foofoo came running out of the house and across the driveway, wailing, ‘The baby! The baby! The baby!’ as if there had been a disaster.
This day, me and Bob were alone. I went over and sat with him on the bench. He blew smoke and gave me a yellow grin. He didn’t say anything about the towel around my neck. In fact Bob didn’t react to much with anything other than a grin. So we just sat there. Me in my cape. Him smoking.
Later that day I remember untying my cape and putting it back on the towel rail, and going into my brother JP’s bedroom to look at his Batman museum. He’d lined up miniature painted figurines in fighting positions on his bookshelf. Batman badges and stickers were also on display. On one badge, Batman was pictured with arms folded. ‘IT’S MY JOB,’ he was saying. Sometimes my mother borrowed this badge when she taught French at school. On the cover of a comic I saw Batman cradling Robin’s blood-streaked body (‘The Death of Robin’) and his black cape was like a shroud. On another Batman was landing on a roof, his cape blooming into the sky, scattering mangy pigeons.
Bob and Foofoo were the grandparents (or great-grandparents? They seemed so ancient) of a kid who was in my class at school, Blair. Sometimes, Blair, his brother, and his parents would come to visit. And a few years ago, I was in a bar, when a guy with a ghost of a familiar face came up to me. ‘Are you Ashleigh?’ It was Blair, Bob’s grandson. We shared a brief, awkward hello and then parted.
Two Bob and Foofoo notes from my mother:
‘I recall an incident when Bob must have had too much to drink. Foofoo left for Auckland in a huff and Bob tried to follow in his little red car which broke down on the motorway. He was stranded overnight in his vehicle. Very lonely time.’
‘Foofoo would work with Mrs Chapman at the library and the two of them would be so funny categorising and placing new books , saying neeeew, as they considered then discarded strategic placings.’