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The bad neighbour

He made being a jerk into an art form, but he also made the neighbourhood more interesting, Maureen Garvie writes

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We've been helping ourselves to the rhubarb and onions our neighbour Neill grew on the verge of the vacant lot beside his house and facing ours. A kind of no man's land – appropriately – a neutral territory where we declare a truce, now that Neill's gone.

I call him our neighbour, but Neill sure wouldn't grant us that. He struck us off his neighbour list four or five years ago, even though we lived right across the street. When George, my partner, asked him what we'd done to get in his bad books, Neill just said, "You know." We didn't, actually, and still don't. Now that he's dead, we never will.

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Back when we used to be neighbours, Neill would leave boxes of fruit on our doorstep for my mother to make jam and jelly with. I left rhubarb pie in Neill's big mailbox in return. When he heard that my daughter had bought her first house, he loaded up his truck with extra rocking chairs and end tables and dropped them off in her front yard. Not long after that, though, he lowered the boom.

It was around this same time that another neighbour moved away, someone with whom Neill had a long-running feud. My theory is that we filled the vacancy. My brother went to school with Neill and says he was always like that, blowing hot and cold, and he only got more so as he got older. Some people on our street were afraid of him, thought he was mentally unbalanced, but I'm sure he was just enjoying himself. I heard him switch mid-rant from cursing someone out in the street to genially hailing another passerby. It's a hell of a lot more fun to bait some folks than be nice to them.

Neill claimed descent from the original families in a neighbourhood dramatically gentrified in the past decades. The village's colourful past of rum-runners and brothel madams would have been more his style. He viewed the rest of us as parvenus, saw his role as keeping the place honest and true to its roots. In a community of carefully restored 19th-century houses, his stood out with its chain-link fence and fleet of old vehicles he parked on the street – traffic-calmers, he called them. At a community barbecue, he brought Jello fruit cubes he'd made with vodka instead of water; he pressed them on a single woman new to the village. At a neighbourhood garden party, he wore a tractor cap and his shirt unbuttoned to the waist. For a court appearance, however, he turned up in a three-piece suit looking like a Trump Supreme Court nominee.

In winter, it was easy to tell who was in Neill's good books and who was out. After a heavy snowfall, he'd be zipping around at first light on his little red tractor, clearing every flake from in front of his house. That done, he'd plow the drive of the woman in her 80s who lived to the west. When she sold her house, Neill went on hopefully clearing the drive for the attractive younger woman who bought it. But he loathed the folks in the little museum to his east and filled in their driveway with the plowed snow. Then he filled in ours for good measure.

Neill made being a jerk into an art form. We got used to him pelting cherry tomatoes at our car as we turned in the drive. They were harmless, and if they landed on the lawn, tasty. But he could also be downright mean and nasty. After the family to his north spent a fortune on rehabilitating their pool, Neill made sure they didn't get much pleasure out of it. He flipped his beer caps over the fence into the shallow end, and sometimes his beer cans as well. One scorching afternoon, as the pool owners cooled off in the water, Neill hooked up his DVD by the fence and played a porn movie at top volume.

Two years ago, I noticed he was toiling physically. He hadn't been really healthy in a long time; he always said he didn't have much liver left. He'd also had some sort of debilitating accident dating back about a decade. Somebody told us he'd passed out in a hotel parking lot and a car drove over his arm. He still used it, stacking firewood, pruning, planting, blowing leaves off his driveway at dawn – but it clearly gave him a lot of pain.

Then one day he appeared with his head shaved, and we realized he must be having chemotherapy. His hair grew back thick and curly, making him look like a grizzled cherub, but by then, medical services were making deliveries to the house. His nice young son came by often to check on him. Anyone on the street would have been happy to help out, but Neill would have chased us away.

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"He won't die," George predicted. "Even the devil won't take him."

On a Monday last summer, Neill was out watering his fruit trees, and that Saturday, his son came across to tell us he'd passed. His funeral was surprisingly well attended. Everyone had a story they wanted to tell.

It's been awfully peaceful on the street since – at least, up until Neill's son began fixing up the house. It seems a lot of Neill's renovations sans permits need bringing up to code. One of his more ingenious projects was a brick arch illegally bridging his house and the museum. It was genuine keystone construction, pretty impressive, I thought. It can't be easy to build one without it falling on you in the process. When I saw Neill's son and his friends felling it with sledgehammers, I felt outraged on Neill's behalf.

It'll be nice to see that chain-link fence gone, and maybe a young couple with kids living in the house. The neighbourhood isn't quite the same, though. I wouldn't exactly say I miss Neill, but I sure feel his absence. Meanwhile, we're enjoying his rhubarb and plums. That noise we hear must be Neill spinning in his grave.


Maureen Garvie lives near Kingston, Ont.


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