And it’s looking at me. I pretend I haven’t seen all the Chucky movies.
While I’m still standing there debating whether to A) see if its eyes follow me around the room or B) put my pants on because I’m standing half naked in full view of the communal backyard, the decision is made for me by C)elia, my elderly neighbour. She shuffles into view in her bright yellow dressing gown and I snap the venetians shut again to rectify the pants situation. When I slowly draw the blinds open again, Celia has removed the toy from the tree and is scolding it in no uncertain terms. There’s finger-pointing, and eventually a bottom-smack. (Just to be clear, Celia smacks the toy, not the other way around.)
I’ve only lived in this flat for a month but it’s already become clear that Celia is a bit of an Interesting Person. She follows my cat around the yard and brings him back up to the house if she feels he’s getting too close to the road. (He’s been an outside cat for 6 years so he’s pretty much sorted out not to go near cars by now but whatevs.) She told me I should take him outside on a lead, and I informed her that if I had the time to be walking my cat he would be a dog. Once she turned up at our front door with him in her arms:
“He’s just done a poo on my bed, but it’s okay,” she said. That wasn’t entirely what I was expecting.
I took my cat from her. Her story seemed pretty unlikely as Tolly doesn’t even have a litter-tray inside my flat, he lets you know in no uncertain terms if he needs to go outside to take a dump (to the point of running across your head, claws out, if you’re asleep at the time). You’d actually have to shut him in and ignore him for a long time. But my initial question was: “Uh, why was he on your bed?”
“Oh, he likes to come in sometimes,” she said, “and play with my cat.”
This also seemed unlikely. A territorial male ‘plays’ with another male cat, on his home turf? But I apologised uneasily for the possibly non-existant poo, and suggested that she not let him into her house any more, ‘in case of more accidents’. Mainly I suggested this because I was starting to wonder if he might come back shaved or tie-dyed after his next visit.
The next morning I go down to check the mail and am startled to find NQR-the-Pooh nestled into the front hedge. I glace around, but there’s no sign of Celia. I wonder briefly if the toy escapes on his own each night and that’s why she was scolding him. I eye Houdini-the-Pooh for a minute. He looks back at me, as if to say ‘I’m a stuffed toy, for Christ’s sake, stop ascribing human powers to me like movement and speech.’ I tell him he’s probably right, but he doesn’t reply.
Celia ups the ante for a few weeks after that. She starts to make little window displays on her lounge sill, pulling up the venetians so everyone can see. They usually involve some combination of stuffed toys, her cat, and pictures cut from the Herald Sun. One time there’s a packet of Tim Tams and a carrot involved. Cousteau-the-Pooh continues to roam the garden, and I begin to think he might be related to that garden gnome in Amelie. Sometimes a large white teddy is sat out in the sun in a doll’s pram, which is gently tied to the wrought-iron balustrade with a blue ribbon. And Celia herself, shuffles about the gardens in her yellow dressing gown.
One morning I hear a funny metallic banging noise. I’m on my way to work so I’ve already waddled back into the house three times (umbrella, pre-natal vitamins, brain). As I approach the mail boxes, I see Celia, dressing-gowned as usual, gently lifting the iron flap of each of the 24 mail boxes one at a time and letting them fall back down with a clang. I try to scuttle past but I’m well into my non-scuttling trimester and she spots me.
“You have to be able to handle a lot of pressure,” she says. I excel at this sort of small talk. Throw me a curveball like “How are you?” and I’m stumped, but mailbox xylophone plus ‘you have to be able to handle a lot of pressure’ and I’m on fire.
“Um, yeah,” I say.
That’s the last time I see Celia.
Our communal backyard sports no less than eight Hills Hoists. It’s like someone was only allowed to pick one iconic Australian symbol for the development, but they could have as many of that one thing as they wanted. When the wind blows and they all creak around at night, it’s equal parts unsettling and soothing, like someone chanting ‘Bhagavad Gita’ over and over but in a Roots Manuva voice and every now and then replacing it with the word ‘Ryvita’. So you’re quite relaxed but you keep letting out nervous giggles.
A few days after I witness Celia Suggs performing Lady of Spain on her mailbox-phone, I open the venetians (this time with pants on because I am a fast learner. Also I’m really quite pregnant and if I can’t see my legs, no one else should have to). I gaze out the window.
There is a toaster tied to one of the Hills Hoists by its cord.
It swings in the light wind, secured by a simple under-over knot at the plug end.
I stand quite still and watch the gently revolving heater of bread. I wonder if you wash toasters on the normal or delicate cycle, and if you chuck in a scoop of breadcrumbs in place of detergent. By the time I get home from work that day the toaster is gone. A week goes by before I realise that unlike the toaster, Winnie-the-Pooh hasn’t popped up for a while. And Celia’s venetians are shut, which is also strange. Usually the cat gets a sunning and there’s at least some form of vegetable-and-tabloid-based window display. I start to worry that maybe she’s keeled over indoors and is being gradually devoured by her cat. I figure that cat would have some issues by now and might not be averse to some ex-Celia if it was attractively plated up on a yellow dressing gown.
I start to sidle up to her lounge room window, realise I’m wider in profile these days, and change my gait to frontle. One of the venetian blind blades has a broken piece, and I carefully put my face to it, half-expecting to find Celia’s bloodshot eyeball peering back at me. Or Winnie-the-Pooh. Or a cat’s bloody maw.
The flat is empty. All the furniture is gone, and the carpets are striped like freshly-steam-cleaned tigers. I remember a removalist van was around a little while ago, though I never saw anyone going in and out of Celia’s front door.
I step back from the window. I wonder about the toaster, and what she meant by it. I wonder if the toaster needed to be able to handle a lot of pressure too.
A week later, a young Filipino couple move in. The woman’s belly is almost as big with baby as mine, and in January we will come out of our flats holding the same orange government folder we got at the hospital.
We will smile, she will ask “How are you?” and I won’t know what to say.