Sheet-iron and pole fences make good neighbours
—with apologies to Robert Frost, ‘Mending Wall’
1. The numbers
Things that get in through the gap in the pole and sheet-iron fence that separates us from the besser-block compound next door include a clutter of chooks, to scrabble up God knows what from our gravel yard; three mongrel dogs, to sprawl on the old, chewed-up vinyl couch upon our back porch; and seven little Dili girls.
Which starts with just one, creeping in to crouch for a private pee from under her tangerine-coloured skirt (our yard evidently being an established venue for that activity), and not seeing me sat quietly reading there, then tiptoeing away to allow her scope for her work … Coming back, I discover five more Timor mites crept in after her, whether for peeing purposes or not; with a tail-ender just now squeezing herself through to bring up the troop’s rear … Seven girls in all, tumbled into our yard: seven little Timor-Lestrians coming through. Ranging knee-high to hip-high in height. A barefooted fiesta of bold greens, oranges, turquoise, pink, scarlet and citrus-coloured skirts, shorts and T-shirts.
‘We have visitors!’ I hiss through the screen-door to my wife, to come for a look. We nod to the girls, Hi. I pick up a toy top to spin on the porch wall, and they shuffle in closer, entranced. One then nods at my camera, and they huddle at my elbow while I click through some recent photographs on the little LCD screen—and it’s suddenly Timor Kiddie-Mastermind, as they collectively identify each image clicking by. Chorus-ing aloud: ‘Cristo Rei!’ ‘Santa Cruz!’ ‘Angel!’ (for a statue at the Immaculate Concep-tion cathedral’s gate). ‘Flower!’ ‘Motor-bike!’ When I snap a few sample shots of them their eyes widen in further delight, as they tussle to view the display screen again—chiack each other and jape.
My wife disappears, to return with some paper sheets and a handful of coloured felt pens (lilac, turquoise, green, orange, pink: to match the hues in which the girls are dressed). I playfully call out ‘Escola!’ and the girls instantly take their cue, to assume separate work-stations on the patio at which to sit or kneel—then diligently set to work. Looking so po-faced I feel chastened for having raised the dreadful ‘school’ word … For ten minutes they dutifully sketch, swapping pens to rampage the full gamut of colours, sneaking looks at each other’s drawings—then finally queue to present their artworks. These are all headed with their names: entrancingly long and decorous, sounding like those of Columbus’s caravels (‘Emilia de Santos Pintos Belo’, ‘Maria Antonia Ximenes’ and the like).
After each girl chants hers out loud and proud, she indicates the salient features of her work: which all show the same cheery background of Dili’s humpbacked hills, depicted as precisely preposterously lush, green and round as they are, pressing in close behind us now—with Mr Sun smiling benignly from his bountiful blue Dili sky, churches with high-slung crosses, and trees bowed down with fruits and love hearts. And each drawing featuring a centrepiece house, markedly unlike their shanty-style one over the fence, we’d presume: showing neat picket gates, with gardens full of flowers; streets with a demonstrative absence of wandering pigs, chickens and dogs, of potholes, smoking rubbish heaps and open drains.
Having recourse to our Tetun phrasebook, we touch on the colours used (verdi, kinur, azul), before praising each artwork up with a universal, resounding ‘Diak!’ (‘Good!’)—for each girl to whirl away, delighted and victorious in her turn. Having completed our review, we ask the girls to count aloud in English for us. Which they ably do, chorusing the numbers rote, like the creed in a cathedral service: an incontrovertible, sure, known thing. Racing the numbers through and not sparing the whip, each girl straining to get to the winning post first. With the final, jubilant, crescendo of ‘Ten!’ delivered triumphantly like a rams-horn blast fit to bring our Kuluhan house walls tumbling down … As follow-up, the girls do the numbers routine again, in Tetun this time, making laughably even easier work of that … On account of which we present the whole counting cohort with a bowl of guavas to eat, the cluster of little dark hands swooping to snatch the fruits up as eagerly as they had earlier snatched at the coloured pens. Their dancing black eyes watch us sidewards as we watch them demolish the lot, seeds and all; making mighty swift work of those guavas.
With the guavas eaten, the tallest and leggiest girl (togged out in scarlet pinafore-shorts) is onto something else: Chanting ‘Hari?’ or perhaps ‘Aree?’, while making simultaneous gestures towards our house’s indoors. Maybe asking, now that we’re all on more intimate terms, if she can use the inside loo perhaps, as opposed to just our yard? When we nod, the whole girl-tribe troops in on the first one’s heels unasked: it’s a mass micturition, it seems; with even the first little interloper seeming to need to go again too. A minute later, when my wife goes to check, she finds half the mob queuing in the bathroom hall while the rest is stripped naked and having a splash at our mandi’s tank: gaily emptying our host’s bottle of imported shampoo, and pouring scooped water over each other’s bowed, foamy heads. (It was a real Sunsilk Shambles in there, as she later reports.)
With the clean-hairs having made use of our towels, redressed themselves and reapplied their ribbons, clips and combs, the second shift took their shampoo turn while the first lot now took to a bout of frenzied housekeeping: sweeping our kitchen floor, tidying its table’s contents into separate little orderly piles of notes-and-coins, newspapers and books, and the different kinds of fruit … Folding our basket of fresh-dried clothes. And placing our footwear in the palm-weave bin on the floor by the door (we’d wondered what that bin was for, thanks for the clarification, girls); running generally amok in these menial delights as I (still sitting on the back porch) have the bejesus startled from me by a young miss elbowing the screen door hard ajar to whisk the last trace of dust from the house, before whirling herself about to rejoin the ongoing exorcism inside.
In the bathroom meanwhile, as my wife had discovered, Hairwash Contingent 2 were now finished winnowing their bright-foaming hoops of shampoo just in time to be brought two fresh towels … And a minute later I dawdle back into the house to discover the entire troop piled on top of one another on the lounge-room couch. Seven pairs of pretty, brown feet each dangling at their respective heights above the clean-swept tile floor; and the whole cohort soaking up with bright, wide, black eyes our host’s family photographs hung on the walls; her small stash of porcelain dolls, and shelves of CDs, DVDs and books. Gawping about in gentle awe at this wondrous sight, intoxicating themselves: in this living room, which would seem pretty much of the type they’d like to live in themselves one bright, fine Dili day, thanks. If they could ever remotely have the choice.
Finally we manage to muster all the gleaming black hair back out into the yard. Where my wife uses a stick to scratch up a noughts-and-crosses game in the dirt. A game evidently utterly alien to them—and so sketches out a hopscotch instead. Which they’re onto straight away, though she’s not got the hopscotch quite right, it seems: the leggy girl in the pinafore commandeering the stick from her to amend the layout of the squares … Then the girls set to play, with the pinafore as hopscotch commandant: dictating that she throws first, then the sequence for all the subsequent girls … At which point my wife and I disengage, to retreat to our house’s new-swept, orderly insides.
Eventually summoned by an over-the-fence call, the girls squeeze their way through the flap one and all, back to the compound’s Otherside … Although half an hour later a tap at our door signals two of them returned for the drawings they’d left behind (which, reluctantly, I let go). And a deputation in the afternoon has one girl cradling the 30-cent Reject Shop top in her palm: uncertain whether the troop was meant to retain it or not. (We tell them of course that they were, and they should.)
Then later still, someone unseen came by to nail up the flap in the fence … All things must come to an end, it seems: eventually have their passage stopped, checked or circumscribed. But we remember this bounty still: these girls who tumbled their way into our yard in the wake of the chickens and dogs; tripping their way into our house and hearts, to exit with their fresh-washed hair done up again in their ribbons, clips and combs. Leaving us utterly charmed … Might we ever quite see their like in this world again?