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Updated: Oct 13, 2023

(The House Next Door Is A)



Looking out of my window recently, I saw into the garden of the house next door. I was not curious, nor was I prying. I was trying to clean the window of layers of dust, which had accumulated after many weeks of rain. Armed with gloves, sponges and cloths, I scrubbed and wiped - and could not help but view the scene through the newly cleaned glass.

I saw that the house next door was built on land which ran parallel to ours. But where we had a front garden, one of the few left in this City, I am told, the people next door had subdivided their land into two parts. A large modern town house now occupies the entire space on one side; and in what used to be the back part of the property, in contrast, is the old family home, that is now falling apart.

There is something obscene about the contrast. The modern town house is one of those architect-planned, minimalist extravaganzas, which has its decor featured in design magazines. Neutral colour palettes and diaphanous curtains and polished natural stone floors and distressed wooden furniture.

The old house next to it is the opposite of streamlined. It lies like a carcass, flat on its back, with its mouth open, and its cavities exposed to the air and the rain. It has been left to fall apart, and it makes me sad to look at it.

Part of the old roof has fallen in, so a cross section of its structural elements can clearly be seen, under all the cracked and fragmented plaster and tiles. What used to be that back garden is now growing over the broken stones, and covering up the parts that are left. Yellow butterflies can be seen, flying from petal to petal of the fragrant flowers which are growing on vines on the plants which are covering the old house.

I briefly wonder if the butterflies are yellow because they eat the yellow flowers?

I think about the sense of the great divide which my vantage point gives to me, of the property next door. It seems to me that the front-facing, airbrushed, flawless mansion with its high, haughty, subdividing wall is a deliberate repudiation of the old and crumbling house adjacent to it.

The green vines are kindly and cruelly putting their arms around the flaking walls and remorselessly pulling them down. Morning glories are blooming all over the take down.

I make discreet inquiries. Apparently a family of five had lived there, until the old parents passed away. And they had done what all their generation had done: left their family home jointly to their children, in the hope of continuity.

But the children did not get along, and after their parents passed away, all veneer of goodwill publicly showed by them during their parents’ lifetime was discarded. The youngest one took a share of the value of the property in cash and emigrated. The two older siblings could not bear to co-exist in close proximity, so sharing the old house was not an option. Terrible arguments and savage words were heard, at times, the neighbours said. They did not want the police to be called, for the sake of the reputation of the neighborhood.

These two people had grown up together in the old house. Gone to school from there, and lived as a family there. Their parents had grown old there, and seen the City changing around them, from the safe vantage of their serene verandah.

Now those days are over, and the second child - now a grown lady with a social position to uphold, and apparently often to be seen, manicured and coiffed and smoothed and botoxed, in the glossy social pages of the salon magazines - has left the old house in which she and her siblings grew up to die, exposed, without having the decency to hire professional builders to take it down, and repurpose the bricks and level the ground.

It makes me sad, to know this story. Even the yellow butterflies cannot transform what seems to me to be a vantage point into the bestiary of the human heart.

Dr. Devika Brendon is an academician, reviewer and editor of English language and literature. Her poetry, short stories and academic articles have been published in journals and anthologies in Sri Lanka, Australia, India, Africa, Italy and the USA. She is the Consultant Editor for the South East Asia Leadership Academy (SEALA), Content Editor for New Ceylon Writing, and a columnist and contributing writer for several national print and digital newspapers including Ceylon Today, The Mirror, The Sunday Times, Groundviews, and The Morning.

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