THE old man was shaking his head.
His wife gave the "Tsk" sound Skippy the Bush Kangaroo used to make when a crowd of French tourists were lost in the bush and she knew she had to find them, give first aid to the guy with the broken leg, help winch him up in the helicopter and guide the rest to safety, despite the flooded river and language difficulties.
The kind of "Tsk" that always spells trouble, in other words.
Things weren't good in the neighbourhood, was the message from the old man and his wife. There was trouble in the 'burbs.
Across the road from where we were standing, their new neighbour pottered around in the way people do when they've just moved in. The old man, his wife and I watched, possibly a bit like the birds in the Hitchcock film.
The new neighbour swept a little. She picked up a couple of pots and put them down again in a different arrangement a few centimetres away, stepped back, moved to the side to get a better angle, ducked her head, then picked up the pots and put them back where they were when she started.
Then she disappeared down a path at the side of her house.
"They came home the other day with a pile of lights and the bloke started hanging them up all over the place," said the old man.
"It put me right off."
To give you some context, the old man and his wife live in my area, but not in my street.
I'm a blow-in of just five years but they've been here for donkeys. I'd tell you exactly how long, but when I asked them, once, it was as if I'd ripped off the scab of a festering wound to add a fresh layer of gore on something laid down long ago. Norwegian mediators trying to bring peace to the Middle East have had an easier time than I did that day.
Norwegian mediators trying to bring peace to the Middle East have had an easier time than I did that day.
And because I'd only asked them the question about how long they'd lived in the area to be polite, I didn't see it coming. I didn't ask their religion or who they voted for. I didn't want to know where they stood on climate change. Just how long, approximately, they'd lived in the area. Bad move.
The old man dated their arrival from a series of events too weird and arcane for me to have understood at the time, and certainly for my brain to have stored for later retrieval. He has thick old retired tradie hands, and as he made his points about why they'd been here since.... well, I can't remember.... he whacked the stumpy index finger of his right hand into the gnarly palm of his left. He didn't raise his voice. He just made his case with a determined finality.
His wife, on the other hand, was adamant they moved in before someone's cousin's first baby was born, or maybe it was the second, but after somebody else's dog died - "You remember, the one with three legs" - while Robert Menzies was prime minister and you could still buy milk in glass bottles for shillings, or something like that.
When he challenged her about the births or the dead dog or Menzies, and what that had to do with the price of fish, she bristled like a bantam hen and produced another series of extended family historic events - their daughter's trip to London, when his mother broke her hip, the time the water heater blew up and they had to stay with her sister for a few days - as evidence to back her case.
None of which settled us on a year. So finally the old man said they'd been in their house for donkeys and I congratulated them and ran away.
That's the context.
This is their patch of the world. There's a history and certain traditions laid down by those who were here first, and woe betide any new neighbours who trash the traditions on their first weekend. Which is why the old man was standing in his front yard shaking his head and his wife was "Tsk"-ing.
The new neighbours didn't realise, but when they arrived home with a pile of Christmas lights and the bloke started hanging them up all over the place, they were threatening the most sacred tradition of all.
The old man has always hosted the biggest, highest, brightest, flashing-est Christmas light extravaganza and Santa-laden pageantry of any home in our neighbourhood, at least for the five years I've lived here. He didn't know what the bloke across the road was planning, but signs were it was going to directly challenge the old man and, let us get this on the record, history.
Direct competition, and from a new neighbour.
The old man likes to get in early with his Christmas decorations. We hadn't even hit December before the first Santa suddenly appeared on his roof. I made the mistake a year or so ago of asking how he got Santa and the reindeer up there, not to mention the elves and sheep, stars, lights along the roof lines and whatever else takes his fancy when Christmas draws nigh.
"The silly old coot climbs up on a ladder and puts them there," his wife said.
That started another 10 minutes or so of bickering between them that I'll never get back, and that only halted when, out of desperation, I suggested the Christmas tree in their loungeroom window - as opposed to the second Christmas tree in another front window - looked a bit lop-sided. He ambled away to check. I said I had to go home to clean out my garden shed or nail my feet to a deck, and ran off.
I drove by late this week. The old man hasn't finished dressing his house, verandah, garage, front and side fences, mailbox, hedge and about a dozen bushes in his front yard yet. The trees are all up and covered with baubles and lights. Santa, the sleigh and a large number of reindeer are on the roof. But you can still walk up their front path without having to duck a light display, and the bushes aren't weighed down by tinsel and stars. Across the road the lights are impressive, but the new neighbours have left their roof unadorned.
This weekend I'll put up a tree in my front window and dress it in lights. And I'll walk to the old man's house and tell him he's still the champ.