I moved into a block of flats after 13 years of sharing houses with strangers. What a relief!! I missed a couple of things about house-sharing – listening to other people’s music, watching TV shows I would never dream of turning on. Mostly, though, I preferred having my own space. I loved being able to close my front door and shut out the world. If someone knocked, I pretended not to be home. I felt truly safe for the first time in my life.
But in one way, I was still sharing, with all the overlappings and sneaky invasions that entailed. Some Hong Kong students moved into the flat next to mine. They asked me how to use the communal washing machine. they asked me for dollar coins to feed it. They were pleasant and polite during the day. At night, though, they had visitors and all of them played computer games. Triumphant cheers. Roars of protest. Stamping of feet. It went from dusk to dawn.
I learned early on in my tenancy that I had a choice when it came to dealing with noisy neighbours. Either I could lie in bed fuming for hours, getting angry and upset while I waited for them to read my mind and turn down the volume, or I could act as soon as the problem arose. I opted for the latter.
I got out of bed, pulled on some clothes and went next door.
A male voice asked a question in Cantonese. It was super obvious what that question was.
“It’s Sydney from Flat 3,” I said.
He went away for a few minutes. I heard hurried whispers. Finally, the door opened and there he stood, with a support team of three other boys. They were all wide-eyed with terror. Who was this gwai lo who could speak their language?
“Can you keep the noise down please? I’m trying to sleep.”
They agreed. But the next night it happened again. And the night after that. And the night after that. It became part of my night time routine. Brush my teeth. Ask next door to keep quiet. Go to bed.
I was in Flat 3. The students were in Flat 4. In Flat 5 was Peter the plumber, Pauline Hansen supporter. He turned up the volume on her election speeches – drive the Asians out of Australia before they take over. Needless to say,. the students and Peter never spoke to each other.
Peter was a stocky, balding man in his thirties. His partner was tall, slender, with fierce blue eyes she used like a dagger on anyone who objected to her actions – like turning up the volume on her music. She had a little boy called Joshua. Peter was not Josh’s father. But I’m sure things would not have improved if he had been. When Josh wanted to go with Peter on a man errand – visiting Bunnings, for example – Peter said no. Josh begged to be allowed to come, too. Peter said no. Josh cried.
“Please! I want to go!”
“Cry all you like. I don’t care!” Peter shouted. Though it was obvious by the anguish underlying his angry rejection that he did care. It was that he had no idea how to be the kind of father who took his son or stepson on man errands.
Whenever I was in the bathroom I could hear him and his wife having domestic relations. This involved her telling him, “You’re weak. If you were a real man you’d do it. But you’re not. You’re weak.” He kept telling her he didn’t want to. He would be almost in tears. Finally, he did what she wanted. He hit her. Soon after, they had sex.
I felt very sorry for him. It seemed to me that he was out of his depth with her, with Josh, with life in general.
One night I woke to the thundering of music. WTF? My walls shook. The door bounced on its hinges. I got dressed and dashed outside. The noise was coming from Peter’s flat.
The couple from Flat 9 were pacing back and forth, wringing their hands. “We’re too scared to say something,” they said. “What if he slashes our tyres?”
I marched up to his front door and hammered. No response. He couldn’t hear me above the hurricane of noise from his music player.
I marched around to the lounge room and rapped on the window. “Turn your music down!” I shouted.
He charged tot he front door and wrenched it open. It was obvious he was on some drug bender.
“Turn your music down!'” I said again.
He started to answer aggressively. Wife from Flat 9 stepped in and smoothed things down. He said he’d had some good news and he was celebrating. It was 2 in the morning.
I went away for a few days, and when I came back, I saw something gobsmacking. Peter, Ms Hansen’s chief supporter, was talking to the Hong Kong students.
The students said, “In Hong Kong, it’s noisy all the time.”
I went inside and was unpacking my sponge bag in the bathroom when I heard Peter say, “She’s a horrible person. Nobody visits her. That’s because she’s a horrible person.”
It took a moment, then the penny dropped. He was talking about me. They were all talking about me.
It was a shock. I didn’t realise protecting my private space from visitors made me a horrible person. Then the writer in me stepped in and I saw open before my mind’s eye a window into his wounded heart. It was the kind of candid view I always long for and rarely get. That view is me from the outside.
We talk a lot these days about empathy and the value of putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Feel their pain. Experience the sufferings they experience. This is human connectedness at its best. But empathy is also looking at yourself through another person’s eyes, seeing yourself as they see you.