The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2007 Results

The Man Next Door

Copyright © David Cohen 2007

I didn’t particularly want to talk to him, but my therapist said it was time I learned to deal with confrontation.

It would have helped if he hadn’t looked so intimidating: six foot, rippling muscles, tattoos, invariably wore a singlet. He was always tinkering with the engine of his V8 Ford Falcon, which was white with red flames painted along the sides. What was it about men and cars? I couldn’t even pretend to be interested in them (cars). My ex-boyfriend Ken would always be on my case for car neglect. He wouldn’t even let me drive his beloved EH Holden. He didn’t trust me. I’d made the mistake of telling him my automotive history: a harrowing tale of neglect and abuse on account of my own indifference. He was incredulous when I told him I was twenty-five before I learned where you put the oil. He shook his head for a while, and then made his customary remark: “I’m sorry, Linda, that’s just not on.” In fact, I had watered down my confession for his benefit; in truth, I was twenty-five before I learned that cars required oil.

The man next door and I hadn’t spoken to each other since he and his daughter moved in to the unit adjacent to mine two months back, and even then, now I think of it, no actual words were exchanged. I smiled and said hello, like a good neighbour. He responded with a barely perceptible nod of the head. His daughter was a bit more forthcoming. She was following him to the gate, struggling with a large cardboard box that obscured her face as far as the bridge of her nose. I guessed she was about eight years old, but lines were already forming under her eyes. “Hello,” I said. “What’s your name?” to which she replied, speaking more to her Nike running shoes than to me, “Oprah.”

Yes, I thought, I’d be embarrassed too.

The man next door turned and said, “Come on,” without looking at me, and she obediently hurried inside after him. The housewarming festivities were over. Needless to say, since that day, there hadn’t been an abundance of dinner invitations from either side.

It didn’t bother me. If he wasn’t the neighbourly type, so be it. I’d done my bit. But then came the violin.

Every morning at six-thirty, I was punctually woken up by the sound of violin practice. Our little Oprah, it seemed, was a budding musician. From what I could hear, she had more commitment than talent. It was always the same: first some scales, and then a broad interpretation of 'Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star', insofar as it contained most of the same notes as the original song, only in a different order. It would start over, and over, and over, the notes coming in a lightly altered sequence each time, and never quite reaching a conclusion.

Linda, I said to myself, I believe we’re in hell.

This was what I had to confront the man next door about. Fancy allowing his daughter to play the violin at six-thirty in the morning. I was all for learning an instrument; in fact, I had studied the violin myself for six years (and although I hadn’t picked it up in ages, I’m sure I was twice as sensitive to violin abuse than non-players). But was that a civilised hour to practise? I worked at an Ezy-Plus, and didn’t finish until 1 AM. It was almost two by the time I got to bed.

But like I said, I had problems with confrontation. How to approach this slightly delicate issue? I thought that my dislike of the man next door might make it easier to complain. But it didn’t. The fact was, he scared me. Instead of complaining, I tried hard not to upset him in any way. If he was working on his car and I walked past and he happened to look in my direction, I would give him that pseudo-smile, where you keep your lips together but widen your mouth. It’s the kind of smile you employ when you suspect that a genuine smile would not be returned by the other party, resulting in social humiliation. Sometimes I thought he gave his almost-nod, although perhaps I was projecting that nod onto him. Maybe his head didn’t move at all. I felt sorry for Oprah, having to live under his care. Where was the mother? What kind of woman was she if the man next door had custody of this child? Answer: the kind of woman who names a child Oprah (surely the man next door didn’t watch daytime television). But then, whose idea was it that Oprah take up the violin? Probably Oprah’s.


My therapist used the word empowerment a lot. She said I had to become empowered. If somebody’s actions were causing me unhappiness, the onus was on me to snatch the remote control unit of my personal well-being out of their hands. I had to bring the issue out in the open. With my ex-boyfriend Ken, and people in general, I just put the problems down to my own hypersensitivity. It was only since I started seeing a therapist that I began to see that my feelings were as valid as everyone else’s. She recommended a book to read - co-authored by herself, I noticed - called Your Feelings Are As Valid As Everyone Else’s. I could have suggested a snappier title, but it wasn’t my place to tell her how to do her job.

The book said that it was important to make others aware of how I felt. 'They probably will not be cognisant of the hurt they’re inflicting upon you. How can you expect that person to refrain from hurt-causing behaviour unless you awarise that person? After all, none of us are mind-readers.' It was unhealthy, said the book, to nurse resentment and hostility. I should take responsibility instead of blaming others for my unhappiness. But I’m afraid of upsetting or alienating people, I thought. I’m afraid of how they might respond. 'To refrain from making them aware, just to "keep the peace",' said the book, as if reading my mind, 'is self-defeating. It may be a short-term solution, but ultimately you will be letting yourself and your relationship down.'

No matter how much I read the book, it didn’t give me the requisite amount of courage. So the problem remained. I’d go to bed around 2 AM. Some five hours later, I would be awakened by “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” coming through the thin wall separating me from Oprah and the man next door. I covered my head with the pillow, even inserted the earplugs I wore for swimming, but I knew I wouldn’t get back to sleep, because I didn’t hear the violin so much as feel it, scraping against my skin like the coarsest sandpaper.

It was true what the book said about resentment. As time went by, my dislike for the man next door turned into outright hatred. Everything else about him irritated me. His ponytail, for instance. It looked ridiculous on a grown man. Ken had a ponytail, and although I never said anything, I felt embarrassed when we were out in public together. The problem was he didn’t have that much hair. He wore the ponytail out of insecurity. The ponytail was kind of a statement: 'I have sufficient hair to facilitate a ponytail, therefore I have plenty of hair.' But Ken himself never seemed quite at ease, as if he knew that he wasn’t really fooling anyone. Like I said, I never protested about it. I was so afraid that he would be devastated if I questioned the ponytail. I conveniently forgot that Ken certainly didn’t hesitate to offer his views on my appearance, not to mention everything else. And he didn’t bother to be constructive. He’d always introduce his criticisms with, “Linda, your problem is that you…” My problem was that I always believed him.


With me, for some reason, stress manifested itself in the form of a pain extending from my left breast to my left knee. I had it all the time since the violin issue arose. The last time I experienced this reaction was with Ken. It became a conditioned response whenever he did something aggravating, which was most of the time. For instance, he had this habit, when he was reading the newspaper, of singing the articles to the tunes of popular songs. With each article, he would sing a different tune. Sometimes he would think of an album - usually by Eric Clapton - and make his way through it, song by song, article by article, until he finished that record, whereupon he would select another, and so on. I admit I’ve always been a bit uptight, but by the third album I wanted to snatch the newspaper away from him and stuff it down his throat. But I didn’t. I didn’t even say anything. I just went about my business as if it didn’t bother me at all. Because - and this is a key factor - I suspected he did it, not to mention the dozen or so other annoying habits, deliberately to annoy me, to get under my skin. He wanted to get a rise out of me. And so the more he did it, the more calm, the more oblivious I affected to appear. That was my idea of revenge. I wouldn’t let give him the satisfaction. I could have calmly said, 'Ken, when you do that it makes me irritated and unhappy.' I could have awarised him like the book said. But at the time, it seemed too much like giving in. If only I’d started seeing my therapist while Ken and I were still together, things might be different. On the other hand, they might not.

I felt that left-side tension when I went to bed at night anticipating the violin. The tortured notes filled me with the same sensation I experienced in dentists’ waiting rooms, hearing the drill as it bored into someone's protesting teeth. Interestingly, the last time I played the violin was at my friend Vicki’s wedding, which also happened to be where I met Ken. He approached me at the reception and heaped praise upon my playing, telling me how much he loved that kind of music. I didn’t know if he was genuine or if he was just using it as an convenient chat-up line. Either way, it worked. As I recall, that was the last compliment he paid me.

On Saturday mornings I watched the man next door performing surgery on his Ford Falcon and thought: today I’m going to raise the subject of the violin. But then I thought: he’s not going to be happy if I interrupt him while he’s working on the car. So I put it off again. I knew I was procrastinating. My therapist said that I always let the offender off the hook, and then rationalised my failure to act. The same thing happened with Ken on a larger scale. In the end he broke up with me because, for one thing, he could no longer stand my 'passivity'.

Now I was angrier with myself than I was with the man next door. I was spineless, a doormat. If assertiveness skills were frequent flyer points, I didn’t have enough to get me to the nearest McDonald’s. I had no self-respect. And now I was just repeating the same old pattern. All I did was engage in mental arguments with the man next door, abusing him for being so selfish and irresponsible in letting his daughter disturb the peace. I couldn’t really get angry with her. She was a child. It was his job to impose a few rules. Why couldn’t she daughter practise at some other time, some other place? And how many times could she butcher that song about the twinkling little star? It wasn't the greatest song in the world, but it didn't deserve that kind of treatment. Didn't her music teacher notice that she wasn't getting any better? Couldn't she at least assign Oprah another song to destroy, if only to give me a bit of variety? Anyway, if I was suffering this much, how did Mr Oprah stand it?


I was sleeping badly. I showed up at the Ezy-Plus in a zombified state. I stared blankly at customers and handed them the wrong change. Once I dozed off in the toilet, somehow tilting further and further to one side, until I woke up with the edge of the toilet paper dispenser hard up against the side of my face. I went back to work with an embarrassing ridge carved into my cheek, all because of a bad violinist. My therapist had no sympathy. “Stop playing the victim!” she said.


A Monday morning. The violin started up as usual. Prolonged sleep deprivation had finally pushed me over the edge. I leapt out of bed and stormed outside in my bare feet, immediately stepping on some kind of sharp stone. The pain spurred me on. I opened the gate and walked up the path towards my neighbours’ unit.

I was still worried, despite my fury. Would he be offended? Outraged? Perhaps he would be relieved. Maybe he was at the end of his rope. Maybe he was waiting for someone to complain. Maybe he couldn’t bring himself to dump cold water on his daughter’s enthusiasm for music, and was praying for outside help. I worked out a tactful approach, a way of framing the confrontation. I would offer to give Oprah a few pointers, like which side of the bow to use, and take it from there.

Off-key screeches continued to issue from the flat as I stepped onto the little verandah and approached the sliding door. I raised my hand to knock on the glass, but stopped when I saw through a gap in the curtains into the living room. The man next door, clad only in football shorts and a blue singlet, stood in the centre of the room, facing slightly away from me. There was a music stand in front of him. He cradled the violin awkwardly with his thick, tattoo-covered left arm, and gripped the bow with his right fist as if it were some kind of power tool that might suddenly break free. I could tell he was concentrating intently as he sawed the bow back and forth across the strings, attempting to play 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star'. For about ten seconds, I was unable to look away. Then I crept back home to phone my therapist.