There are eight apartments in our block, two bedrooms to a dwelling. Couples with children, uni students and backpackers: at least 20 people living in our block. The walls are thin and the ceilings are low.
There are another five blocks of flats in our tiny avenue. We deal with the cramped lifestyle by living in our home as little as possible. We leave the apartment early in the morning and come home late.
The front bedroom where I sleep faces onto a driveway. The windows near my bed shake as cars drive past to park. My six-year-old son is woken up by power tools and spotlights that the neighbour in the back yard behind our apartment uses late in the evening. Sometimes, as I try to sing my son to sleep, the ungodly rev of a car engine, parking against the fence line near his bedroom, startles him awake.
When upstairs neighbours stomp around, we hear the stomps. The clash and clutter of plates being washed, the flush of the toilet, the sound of water gurgling in the drain, the heavy hum of air conditioners in summer.
Smells drift through every apartment. Eggs and onions frying in the morning, fish and meat cooking at night. Mould climbs the walls of the bathroom in summer. There’s no green outdoor space, just concrete, and the smell of petrol fumes as neighbours start their cars each morning.
A tradesman who lives on the second floor forgets his washing on the clothes line and his clothes tumble down the driveway in the breeze. Nobody picks them up, and his clothes rot to rags in the driveway.
‘Why don’t they care, Mum? It’s littering, isn’t it?’ My six-year-old knows not to throw things on the ground, and is confused by the trash left in the driveway.
I dream of revenge for drunken neighbours who keep us awake. I plot scenarios involving playing opera at full blare at two in the morning or banging pots and pans as revenge for late-night parties that kept us all awake. A show of anger would be so easy, so gratifying. But we’d still have to live here the next day, and the day after that too, packed in against hostile strangers. So I say nothing.
I find needles in the alleyway behind the back of the flat. ‘Mummy, someone’s out there,’ whispers my son one night. No-one can come in, I tell him. That’s why there’s bars on the window. I’ll protect you, I say. He still believes me.
We know our neighbours through their sounds and smells. My upstairs neighbour invites his friends over to play cards on Thursday nights. We know, because his door slams every time another guest arrives, and we hear the shuffle and slap of the cards. The elderly neighbour on the left side of our apartment is having an online affair via Skype, as evidenced by the blip of the computer connection and his amorous murmurs late at night.
‘Can we go back to your place?’ asks a date. I hesitate. Late at night I’ve heard the sounds of one of my neighbour’s hook-ups. The slap of skin on skin. The moans, whimpers and grunts, the shuffling of furniture. A headboard banging against a wall. That could be me too, the only way my neighbours would know me: the sound of my skin and uncensored animalistic noises. So I decline.
We are unwilling participants in our neighbours’ lives. When our neighbours have marital problems, we’re silent witnesses to the yelling, screaming and crashing. One night a neighbour locks his wife out. ‘Let me in, it’s my house too!’ she screamed, pounding on the door. It was freezing outside. Then the slam of a door, and uncharacteristic quietness from all apartments on every side.
‘Don’t bounce the ball inside,’ I tell my son, as the sound echoes through our cramped living room. ‘Why?’ he asks. ‘Because we have neighbours. The sound might disturb them. We have to treat them the way we’d want them to treat us,’ I say.
A neighbour from a large, expensive house a little further down the street has developed an obsession with hard rubbish left on the footpath. He leaves abusive notes taped to broken furniture awaiting council removal. ‘Move your filthy shit, you cunts. Only scum lives like this.’ He wants to sell his property and the wreckage left on the side of the street is pulling the property value down. I sympathise with his anger over the mess left in the street, but shudder when I walk past his aggressive notes.
One night, in the uncommon silence of three o’clock, the sound of crying wakes me. The sound of sobbing lasts for 40 minutes, then vanishes. Ignoring the sound of other humans is the prime objective in cramped suburban living. I dream of caves. Of remote, rural homes in the bush. Of tree houses in forests, far from civilisation. I dream of properties with a fence line far enough away for me never to hear the neighbours.
These are prime-location apartments, in an affluent suburb, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars according to the real estate market. But living in this block feels like social decay. There’s a glut of apartments in Melbourne, and landlords are just happy to have tenants paying rent. Bodies packed on bodies in little boxes.
Every eight weeks or so I pack my son and a bag of clothes into the car and drive to the bush, far away from people. At night the leaves stir as the wind flows across the valley. From the treetops, koalas roar. Frogs sing in the little pond near the side of the house. I sit in awe and relief in the quiet, crisp night air outside. Holidays are always over too soon. We have to come home.
At dawn the city-bound train rattles us awake, rumbling down the track two blocks away. Another day begins. Neighbours leave for work, slamming doors shut.