Lessons from a neighbour on curious aspects of life

"I just love your chickens,"
"I just love your chickens,"

Not unusually, it was a death that brought Ian Parker and I together.

I had briefly visited his neighbour in the summer of 2009 and a month or two later I bought the house of the dead man and became Ian's new neighbour.

"On account of my name, I like to know what's going on," he said when we first met across the fence. There was something in his cheeky grin and the gleam in his eye that made us friends immediately so it was only natural Kirsty and I spent one of the first afternoons at our new home drinking beer next door in Ian's sun room.

From what I recall, he waited four or possibly five seconds before detailing the story that preceded my purchase of the house next to his. It is a tale we still talk about, as much the content as Ian's delight in telling it. It had everything. There was the body two days undiscovered, the Alzheimers-addled mother causing chaos, the police cars with their flashing lights, the serious efficiency of the ambulance staff, even a dog catcher.

"I don't quite know how the dog was involved," said Ian, all grin and gleam.

I was full of plans for the house back then and I laid them out plain and simple to Ian that afternoon. I was going to paint the awful apricot coloured weather boards, chop out the randomly planted trees that destroyed his view of the street, replace the crazy succulent-strewn garden. I was going to do this and I was going to do that and it would all be done in a year or two, though it actually took closer to three and a half.

Thankfully, I'm quite sure Ian understood I was then labouring under a false impression of both my abilities and the hours in a day.

"You've got plenty of time," he grinned. "Can I get you another beer."

Ian was a good neighbour to have in that respect. And in others too.

"Oh you're that Matt Rilkoff," he said one day. "You know, I love my paper. Read it from back to front each morning."

"You know, Matt," he grinned, "sometimes I just don't know what you're going on about."

I think I shrugged my shoulders at that. Truth was neither did I, but from then on I always kept Ian at the back of my mind when writing. It was the neighbourly thing to do.

Though we only lived next door to each other for three or so years our lives had become entwined well before. More than once Ian's name came up among people I had known all my life and he had met my grandparents years before I ever did.

"How is Lucy," he would ask of my grandmother as we sat in his sun room.

"She's fine," I would say. Or "She's not so well these days."

"Pass on my regards, will you," Ian would ask. And I would.

In the beginning, Kirsty and I came to believe Ian had 37 children because every time we looked over the fence there seemed to be another one visiting.

"Holy cats," I would say to Kirsty. "There's another one. How many has he got."

It didn't take long for us to meet and know them by name. There wasn't 37 after all and though I'm still not sure of the number exactly, I think it is five.

Most days I would see one of them there, visiting or helping out and if it wasn't them it was one or two of Ian's friends. He seemed to know everyone. More than I did, even though I was out there every day getting paid to know people.

From the stories in his sun room I picked up on his past work for the BNZ, learned about his misjudged foray into kiwifruit growing, his love of rugby, his belonging to a choir. He was an inspiration, really. He stayed curious, seemed to take pleasure from everything he did, right or wrong and grin at the small things as equally as the large.

"I just love your chickens," he would tell me, or "What are you doing up at five in the morning," or "I've been fascinated by that piece of moss on your roof for years now."

Of course I hadn't even known about that and it could only be seen from Ian's house anyway. When he introduced me to it I had to agree, it was fascinating.

There among all the symmetry of the concrete tiles was a globule of moss as big as a fist. It really did interrupt the lines of the roof and if you let it the globule could actually be a little bit irritating. But if you handled it another way the irritation could become a pearl.

Perhaps that was my neighbour's secret.

Taranaki Daily News