The things you learn by being a curtain-twitcher
I've always loved to snoop. Not in a way that has led to anyone pressing charges – no, I'm just a garden-variety stickybeak.
When I walk past rows of pretty terrace houses, I peek through front windows hoping to catch a glimpse of life inside. Ditto basement apartments in trendy suburbs and fishbowl penthouses by the beach.
While I'm happy to play nosy parker, I'm rather fond of my own privacy, so when we moved into our new place, I loathed our ground-floor kitchen. It overlooks a busy footpath, meaning anyone walking past can also see in. The only reason I didn't install a blind was the certainty that it would soon be covered with dishwater stains and miscellaneous food splatters.
Months passed and my feelings towards this public display of my untidy benchtops began to shift as the rhythm of the neighbourhood slowly revealed itself. During my regular dawn coffee-making expeditions, I learned who rose early, who worked night shifts, who travelled often.
Never one to frequent gyms, I came to feel a grudging respect for the committed souls who trudged towards the shopping centre in their workout gear, none more often, it seemed, than the young guy with the superhero physique and the "Shut up and squat" T-shirt.
At the nearby hospital one day, I was utterly unsurprised to spy the tall, tidy-looking older man who often strolled past my kitchen window early, coffee in hand. Of course he was a doctor! So meticulous! So hygienic! If grim news were to be delivered, he would possess the perfect bedside manner: matter-of-factness cloaked in a warm layer of humanity.
"Hi there!" I said to my medico friend, moments before remembering we had never met. His face was suitably blank, and I muttered something about living down the road before continuing on my way.
As the day unfolds the tempo of the neighbourhood changes. Harried parents shepherd children to school. Tradies vie for parking spaces near their jobs. The stay-at-homers wheel prams towards playgrounds and shops. The afternoon wears on and the students return home, followed later by weary-looking office workers.
Evening brings a new wave of passers-by. A few weeks ago I watched as the shy-looking guy who almost always wears headphones trudge past. No headphones this time, just an enormous bunch of roses in one hand. My heart ached remembering the excitement and trepidation of dating. How distant that world felt now in the presence of my two sticky-fingered munchkins.
A few hours later I smiled and performed a silent fist pump when I saw him walking back down the hill, arm in arm with a young woman holding the roses.
And then there was Lela. Born in the late 1930s, she grew up in the former Czechoslovakia and had worked as a radiographer. She never married and had little patience for many of the adults in our street but she loved babies, and always stopped to chat when she saw me lugging my two tiny humans around the neighbourhood.
The day we moved in she gave my daughter a fragrant pink rose which sat on our kitchen windowsill in a champagne flute. It died before we got around to unpacking the vases. That first Christmas, she dropped off a piece of gingerbread and a sheet of stickers. And when I brought my son home from hospital for the first time, she debated which of his chubby limbs she would like to devour first.
A few months ago I realised I hadn't seen Lela on her regular trips to the shops, or to her hydrotherapy classes which she attended after a fall left her with a broken hip and shattered bones in her face.
No one I spoke to had seen her either. It wasn't until I saw someone coming out of her apartment block that I learned she had died in hospital a few months earlier. I regretted not finding out sooner. I wondered who went to her funeral, and what they had said about her.
For all her prickliness Lela wanted her life to be witnessed. A one-way relationship through the kitchen window was never going to be enough. I still think of her when I see my son's dimpled elbows.