First published in The Big Issue Australia #666 (22 July 2022)
‘Good Neighbour Noel’ we called him, though not to his face. Then it would be “Noel, thanks for bringing the bins in”. Or “Noel, you didn’t need to mow the nature strip”. Or “Noel, thanks for hosting the street party again”.
Sometimes the salutation would change to “Noel, have you got a minute?” or “Noel, can you give us a hand?”.
And of course he always did have a minute, always could give you a hand.
A gasfitter by trade (and the street’s unofficial caretaker) he would give you mates’ rates for maintenance to the heaters or the stove or the hot-water service. One invoice had no monetary fee or GST. “A banana cake, if you can,” he wrote on the slip of paper that he popped under the front door.
Noel and his livewire partner Daphne (“No, we’re not married!,” she said regularly) were some of the older residents of the street back then.
He had moved into Number 13 fifty or more years ago when his adoptive parents made the shift from country Victoria. No siblings.
“Swan Hill,” Noel said at one street-party, sweating under his Santa Claus suit. “Good fishing up there on the Murray, amongst the River Red gums.”
Waving flies away, he gestured to the more modest trees in our street. “I planted most of those when I was a kid. Not exactly River Red gums, but they do the job. And the council was never going to do anything.”
The street party – first Sunday of December – was always held outside Noel and Daphne’s place, which was mid-way up the street, shaded and easy for Noel to set up his barbecues (yes, plural), trestle tables and Eskies.
Neighbours brought salads and sausages and burgers and drinks and cakes and resumed conversations from 12 months previously.
Children swarmed up and down the road – a suburban side-street – blocked off unofficially with witches hats and a few cars parked at right angles. (“Council permission for closing the road for a street party? Blow that. We’d be waiting til the end of time.” Or words to that effect.)
The kids played till after dark, giddy on soft drinks and Christmas lights, Noel and Daphne’s the brightest. The adults drank and yakked and Daphne came into her own, always one for a party, a shindig.
Come the morning after Noel would be up early to pack away everything, emptying the melted ice-block water from the Eskies onto the trees. At the same time he also had to keep an eye on Daphne, who tended to wander, trimming overhanging flowers from neighbours’ front gardens. “They look lovely in our vases,” she would say.
He nursed her to her final farewell and shortly after sold the house and moved across town. “Too many memories here.”
For his last street-party before moving, the children filled his footpath with chalk drawings: Noel in his blue overalls, Noel in his Santa suit, Noel in his barbecue apron holding a fishing rod. Noel pushing a lawn mower.
The icing on the cake that December simply said “Thank you, Noel.”
For a few years he would re-appear on the first Sunday of December, Santa hat on his head, his new lady on his arm.
Another neighbour became the street’s unofficial caretaker, including hosting the party, and displaying the brightest Christmas lights. (His carport is very handy if the weather is less than welcoming in early December.)
Christmases came and went, Noel’s absence noted. “None of us are getting any younger,” someone would say, while turning the sausages.
But then, on 26 January one summer, on the day some call Australia Day, the tail-end of the news is on the television and there is Good Neighbour Noel at a Welcome to Country smoking ceremony on the other side of the city. A local council event. He’s wearing a cloak of possum skins, he’s waving at flies with twigs of gum leaves. The caption says, ‘Uncle Noel, Elder’.
He’s talking briefly about forebears and ancestors and traditional custodians, about looking after country, looking after the rivers and the fish and the trees.
A few neighbours knock on each others’ doors the next morning, or send text messages, trying to join the dots. Adoptive parents…Swan Hill…a generation of children…