ONE LAST THING

Seek­ing neigh­bourly re­venge in an ur­ban set­ting re­quires thought and plan­ning

Financial Mail - Investors Monthly - - Contents - NICKY S SMITH

Nicky Smith col­umn

On Third Av­enue in Melville the un­painted house across from the pri­mary school has for the past two years borne a warn­ing to all.

Spray­painted onto the ex­te­rior walls is an an­ar­chic script such as you might see on things that are con­demned. Dystopian, an­gry, hur­ried black writ­ing. ALARM! ALARM! ALARM! The let­ters have been re­drawn, as when a ball­point pen writes with knob­bly ink, leav­ing gaps as it trav­els across a page, and has needed over­writ­ing. Three or four times.

The writ­ing crosses the length of the house’s front wall.

I wanted to take a pho­to­graph the first time I drove past it. I meant to take a pic­ture. It made me laugh, and I meant to share the funny be­cause the des­per­ate, sub­ur­ban pas­sive-ag­gres­sion is so re­lat­able.

I could imag­ine how the per­pe­tra­tors had planned their vengeance over a too-long Christ­mas pe­riod while their neigh­bours were on their break, leav­ing the alarm to hol­i­day alone, un­su­per­vised.

Left to its own de­vices it let it all hang out, get­ting the dust out of its sirens, act­ing on its own im­pulses with no one shut­ting down its voice just when it was warm­ing to its song of panic, hor­ror and fright.

Unchecked by the pres­ence of the alarm’s peo­ple, the des­per­ate neigh­bours vented their rage care­fully, mak­ing it clear to ev­ery­one who passed that in this house lives an in­con­sid­er­ate id­iot.

I could re­late to the rage and the plot­ting to find a fit­ting and ap­pro­pri­ately sham­ing so­lu­tion.

You can’t shoot any­one be­cause they are clearly not home. Cut the power? Hmm, could wind up elec­tro­cut­ing your­self; also it’s prob­a­bly il­le­gal. Okay, to­tally il­le­gal. Throw rocks? Maybe. I do know some­one who used this very ef­fec­tively. I found out when I asked why there was wire on the out­side of the bars and win­dows of his neigh­bour’s house, which is next to his pool area. (To be clear, though, he is prob­a­bly the world’s worst neigh­bour. This guy is ba­si­cally the devil.)

He laughed and said the neigh­bours had put up the fenc­ing and ra­zor wire af­ter he had thrown a rock at the house be­cause they were com­plain­ing (again) about the noise he was mak­ing. He hadn’t meant to throw the rock through the win­dow into their house but he had lost con­trol — he had been very drunk and a lit­tle high, he said, sound­ing just the tini­est bit ashamed.

He said he had apol­o­gised to them, and the po­lice, and ex­plained that he was drunk and an­gry and would pay for the dam­ages. What did the neigh­bours do? I asked. They moved out, he said.

So it does work. But you re­ally have to be into it and com­mit. Sham­ing them with some an­gry spray paint­ing may be a lower risk op­tion which still wins points for get­ting the point across.

In this case, though, it seemed that no one cared about the writ­ing on the wall. They were de­fi­ant and shame­less. Or the peo­ple had moved out and the new peo­ple didn’t have the money to paint over it.

Walk­ing to break­fast on the main drag the other morn­ing I saw a man paint­ing the wall an un­for­tu­nate bis­cuit colour. Just one ALARM! was still vis­i­ble and the third was about to dis­ap­pear.

Look at that, I thought, it’s fi­nally be­ing re­moved. I watched a while and asked him con­ver­sa­tion­ally how long it had been there, won­der­ing if he would con­firm that it must be at least two years.

Not long, he said, in­stead of “I don’t know”. I watched a while longer and then felt a familiar flut­ter of panic. The fear I have of familiar, cher­ished things chang­ing. Child­ishly sim­ple ref­er­ence points.

I drive past the house of­ten. Some­times I barely no­ticed the writ­ing, some­times I thought that I re­ally should stop and take a pic­ture be­cause it made me smile.

Some­times it read like a warn­ing, a re­minder to guard against creep­ing com­pla­cency and to keep the prom­ises made to our gen­tler selves.

“Time is limited. Your panic is real,” it seemed to shriek. ALARM! ALARM! ALARM! I will miss it.

I could imag­ine how the per­pe­tra­tors had planned their vengeance over a too-long Christ­mas pe­riod

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