This is one of the Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition 2020 finalists. For a full list of the finalists revealed so far, head here.
The offending property stands directly across the road from where I sit in my bay window, sipping my morning coffee.
Disgraceful. Disgusting. Pathetic. Appalling.
Some of the views entertained by the residents of Jupiter Parade. These opinions hum down the telephone cables or simply swim in the ether that hovers above and around the expansive brick veneer houses set in gardens beautified with symmetrically planted flower beds, manicured lawns, trimmed box-hedging and frequently pressure-hosed driveways of stamped concrete.
Four-times runner up of the spring garden competition, Agnes Lowe says the place, with its peeling weatherboard walls, leaky gutters and garden choked with long grasses and rampant weeds is an abomination. What's more, the For Sale sign designed to attract the attention of prospective buyers leans perilously close to total collapse.
I do sympathise with Agnes since she lives right next door to the mess of it all and the garden competition is less than six weeks away. Although it's not yet seven o'clock, she's already bent double digging the invading paspalum shoots out of her lawn.
At the sound of an approaching vehicle, Agnes unfolds her lean body, tilts her straw hat back from her forehead and peers down the road. I crane forward in my wingchair. The car, vaguely familiar, pulls up outside my house. The occupant climbs out and crosses the road and I recognise the estate agent who's been grappling with the difficult task of trying to sell the unkempt property. For a time, he wrestles with the 'For Sale' sign and I roll my eyes at his clumsy attempts to straighten it. But when he eventually accomplishes his aim and then plasters a 'Sold' sticker across it, my mouth drops open and I wave my handkerchief in a futile attempt to catch Agnes's attention. Her gaze is clamped on the agent who takes a moment to survey his work before heading back to his car, no doubt with a deep sigh. The instant he drives off, I dart outside and meet Agnes in the middle of the road.
'I'd almost given up hope,' she says, hands clasped against her breast. 'Might have a chance now.'
Everyone's curiosity is aroused when the new owners arrive just two weeks later. A young couple it seems although no one can be certain. They're accompanied by a dozen or so other people who swarm out of a battered Volkswagen campervan and several other vehicles of varying vintage, roof racks piled high with what are presumably the new neighbours' belongings. Agnes has joined me to watch events from the vantage point of my bay window.
'Bloody hippies,' she whispers with an air of disbelief as she sinks into a chair like a deflated dummy.
Days flash by. The cut-off date for entering the garden competition draws closer. Our young neighbours smile and wave as they come and go. Their Volkswagen spurts black smoke into the otherwise clean air of Jupiter Parade. Agnes continues to spend her days doubled over. And every resident watches the grass and weeds of the abomination grow thicker, taller and wilder. We begin to assemble in twos and threes in front gardens, in the Aldi store around the corner and some actually venture into one another's homes. The air buzzes with condemnation. Typical. Predictable. Clueless. Irresponsible. Deviate. Druggos.
Since the offending property lies opposite mine, I'm pressed into joining a delegation, led by Agnes, that approaches the young couple one cool evening. Three of us hang back behind our leader who shivers in the stiff breeze and calls through the screen door.
'Hello. Anyone home?'
After a brief moment, the young woman appears.
'Hi,' she greets us with a broad smile. She pushes open the screen door. Her fair hair is loosely plaited. She wears orange harem pants and beaded leather bracelets cover both wrists.
'Come in, come in,' she adds.
Her friendliness seems to weaken Agnes's previously angry resolve.
'Um,' Agnes begins. 'I hope you don't mind this intrusion but ...'
'Not at all, not at all, it's so fantastic to meet you all.'
We're ushered into a living room that glows with red lamplight. We lower our selves onto divans spread with tie-dyed fabrics of various hues. Gracefully decline the offer of camomile tea. Nod politely when our host's partner emerges from an adjoining room and welcomes us. Then the members of the delegation dart glances at one another and finally at Agnes who clears her throat and begins to put her case to the young couple.
Half an hour later, we emerge and huddle on the footpath outside Agnes's house.
'I think that went better than expected,' Agnes says in a satisfied voice.
We nod our heads and one of the delegates declares, 'Mission accomplished.'
I say how strange it is that the couple, of all people, didn't seem to appreciate the need for beauty outside as well as in. After all, their lounge room was very attractive in its own way.
'Well,' says another delegate with a distinct look of smugness, 'we certainly spelled out the standards expected in Jupiter Parade.'
'And how important the garden competition is,' says Agnes.
Exactly two mornings later, I'm interrupted during breakfast by a furious banging on my front door. When I open it, I find Agnes there; she's red to the gills and her mouth is opening and shutting like a landed fish. My gaze follows the frantic gesture of her extended arm until it alights on the front yard across the road.
I'm not sure if the image of Venus di Milo pops into my mind because the store mannequin that's been planted in the middle of the abomination is missing an arm, or because of the vague association with Jupiter. But I bite my bottom lip to suppress the smile that teeters there.