by Michael Botur

from Hell of a Thing (The Sager Group, 2020)

An author needing peace and quiet finds out how far he’ll go to silence the noisy neighbour – even if it means destroying the man’s life.




A window smashes, tinkles. Party music punches the air. You sit upright in bed, afraid to breathe. There’s a lull, for a silent second, then your neighbour is bellowing at his woman over the bass.

Doof doof doof. Like somebody stamping on the floor in boots.

You speed-dial the council, checking on Felicity as you wait to be connected. Your wife’s eyeballs twitch under the sleep mask pulled against her chubby soft face. She snorts, turns, mumbles. She’s had an exhausting day setting up the gallery. Take control or Felicity will direct her frustration at you. Don’t neglect your duty. This used to be a good street before the uncivilized moved in. Regain it, man.

Noise Control, please. Me again, ha ha, I know, I know, terribly late isn’t it, ha ha, and on a Tuesday, I fully agree, but listen, there’s a situation I’m hoping you can help me resolve… .

You give your details and clarify, yes, you’re THE author, of the Dan Drayton action thrillers, yes yes, studying her tone as she reads your name back. You’re insistent that noise control officers intervene to silence the doofs and roars at 148b Calcutta Close. Gazza Hendrix and his uncouth tribe cannot be allowed to ruin the neighbourhood. It’s not even his house – the man has the privilege of renting the place. You inform the phone operator about the decibel breaches you’re registering with the app on your phone and insist she shares your complaint with next door’s seldom-seen landlord. You email her a copy of the spreadsheet on which you’ve been recording the date of each noise crime over the past year, decibel level of each infraction, notes on associated violence and damage and rubbish pollution. You send in video of the framed diplomas on your wall rattling. You add for her a description of Gazza’s reprehensible so-called music, a vile electronica sampling Pachelbel’s Canon with periodic pauses to lull one into a false sense of security before a robotic DJ says ‘Let the bass drop,’ and drop indeed it does, like a piano crashing into your bedroom.

Since bringing his boys home from school and putting on a smoky sunset barbecue, Gazza has spent the night blasting his apocalyptic soundtrack while guzzling bourbon and cola, throwing empty cans at your fence, pacing the verandah, making endless calls to cousins yelled into his cellphone. There has been six hours of Gazza’s racket so far, plus pops and shrieks from the Hendrix children as they destroy bottles with a BB gun. At one point Gazza mated with that woman of his on the trampoline. You zoomed in with the video recorder on your phone and made sure to capture the evidence up close, the blue droplet tattooed under Gazza’s eye, the empty bowl of his partner’s starved stomach. Her flimsy knickers dangling off her big toe as she rocked and kicked.

After the noise complaint is officially received by the council, you follow with a strongly-worded email. You then spend an hour taking photos from the safety of your double-glazed windows. At 1:16 am, you email Parking, Barking & Noise photos of broken glass which has fallen into your property from the garage window shattered at 1:08 by Gazza’s elbow. You supply photos of garbage sacks on your berm, a photo of an oil slick leaking from a rusting hulk under the fence towards your stormwater drain and, perhaps most ghastly of all, photos of two shirtless brats on the deck, lit by a security light, having fun far past bed time. All this on a fucking Tuesday night – well, Wednesday, now.

It’s 2:15. The thinnest part of the night. Insanity is near. Madness. Social breakdown. Five millimetres of glass protects you from the chaotic air outside. In bed, you pull noise cancelling headphones over your ears and listen to a podcast. Lisping liberal Malcolm Gladwell is discussing the ‘Broken Windows’ policy enforced in New York. Radical when introduced, Broken Windows punished even the most minor crimes, dissuading offenders from letting their sin pollute the population. From Gladwell’s cool lips spring sage statistics. Within two years of citizens being encouraged to report violations as minor as a broken window, neighbourhoods measured 78 percent decreases in noise pollution, graffiti, muggings and assaults.

Your eyelids settle. Your thoughts wobble. At 4:22 there’s a wet PLAP, and PLAP again. Fists hitting meat, meat hitting wood. Red and blue lights lick the ceiling. Gazza begins bellowing at the cops. His woman is sobbing. There’s a squeal from Gazza’s swing set. The gasps and giggles of children.

Nearly dawn, now. They’ve been partying all night. Their obnoxious noise has invaded your home. As treebirds begin chirping, you email property manager Neelam Gurunathan the name of your solicitor and inform Ms. Gurunathan that unless she gets rid of Gazza and his feral family, Mr. Graham G. Baigent, LLB, will be launching civil proceedings on your behalf.

Drained, zombified, you stagger down the hall. Slippers and coffee.

Lots of coffee.  


The services of solicitor Graham Baigent cost $295 an hour. From 9:13 to 9:43 am you give him as much pre-prepared information as possible over the phone and email him six times, handing over photos, your spreadsheet, your audio and video recordings of smacked flesh and cracked glass and outrageous fornication. He promises to send a letter to the property manager forthwith. The letter is dispatched at 12:01 pm. The end begins.

Mr. Baigent’s legal notice summarizes the Residential Tenancies Act, its laws regarding the right to peaceable enjoyment of a property, penalties of two years imprisonment or a $100,000 fine. The letter concludes by encouraging Ms. Gurunthan to research Broken Windows policy and neighbourhood renewal. First step in renewing the neighbourhood: the immediate eviction of one Gareth Mason Hendrix. Your solicitor has checked Tenancy Tribunal hearings from the past ten years. This isn’t the first time Mr. Hendrix has broken rental rules.

It’s 1:08 pm when Neelam Gurunathan telephones and apologizes and promises to take immediate action. She didn’t know “all this” was happening, she swears. Her words have a forced, grovelling tone. A higher-up has leaned on her.

You put two Sulawesi statuettes on the windowsill to hold your bedroom curtains open, kneel against the wall and watch as, 20 minutes following the phone call, Ms. Gurunathan parks her BMW convertible with a squeal and trots up the rubble of the driveway in clopping heels, stumbling as she navigates potholes. Gazza comes to the door in a singlet, camouflage pants and a blue paisley scarf wrapped around his forehead. His boys run among his legs, even though it’s a school day.

Neelam’s body contorts meekly as she hands him an envelope and attempts to walk away. Gazza opens the letter, understands he’s been given 48 hours to vacate the premises, and begins hurling bourbon cans at his property manager.

Homo pauperis can read! Astonishing, really. Not so astonishing is Gazza’s reaction to the upset. He biffs a toaster down the driveway. It thuds against the door of the convertible. The boys chase after the toaster and play with its spilled springs and filaments. More troglodytes emerge from the house, men in caps and singlets, cousins or uncles, then follows a long period of drinking and smoking on the deck, the men muttering while the children frolic in a car wreck. Gazza then begins hauling rubbish onto the curb – a couch, a boxing bag leaking foam, some tyres. Bottles, cans and crates: he and the children simply throw them from the deck towards the road.

Gazza’s common law wife is seen, briefly, carrying small seedlings out from the woodshed and loading them into the family’s van. You watch the sashay of her buttocks moving up and down. A firm bum, hard and ripe despite her pilled grey Warehouse trackpants. She’s slim, the wife, and with her hair sequestered in a messy bun that makes her chin looks elegant. Cleopatra-esque. You can see the knobs of her spine. Every ounce of fat smoked away. It’s a shame she’s wasted on a man who spends his final moments doing pointless loops around the driveway on a BMX. He could have made something of his life, perhaps. When they first moved in 18 months ago, there was a friendly-enough conversation over the fence and you ended up lending Gazza your copy of Rich Dad, Poor Dad and assumed, since it never came back, he might have been studying it.

The boys carry armloads of shiny orange metal out. They’ve stripped the copper from the hot water cylinder, it appears, and you begin dialling the police before they scream away in some vehicle and it’s over.

You’ve fixed the broken windows problem! You! You’re a superhero of sorts – a real life Batman. You message your wife, ask her to pick up dinner and wine on her way home from the gallery. You squeeze in a couple hours of highly productive writing, fizzing with glee. Covert ops mercenary Dan Drayton finds himself on shore leave in Bangkok and isn’t sure if he should trust the advances of a sultry Saigon siren who lures him into a grotty flat full of Thai ruffians with black plastic sunglasses fixed to their eyes, baboons in tank tops who beat the stuffing out of the hero.

The scene is making you anxious. This isn’t the outcome Dan Drayton deserves. You put your computer to sleep and lie down on the couch, flipping on the telly for some comfort.

Felicity arrives home with some good sirloins. You dine quietly with a tablecloth and candlelight, Brahms on the stereo, and outside, silence like snow.


He shows his face, the landlord does – well, he visits his property, though his face is concealed under black Ray Bans. You’re summoned next door for a handshake and a chat.

Ms. Gurunathan introduces you to the owner, inflecting the introduction with apologetic little notes about ‘the tenants,’ then backs away to let the men talk while she tallies the damage on her tablet. It feels wrong to stand on Gazza’s turf. It’s a contaminated place.

You’re astonished to find yourself dealing with a landlord who’s cool-headed, professional, courteous. A late 30s gent with the physique of a yachtsman and the polo shirt to match. Behind the aviator lenses, his skin is well-stretched over his skull – he pays for a good chemical, perhaps, or a great surgeon, or maybe it’s just the sun which really smooths a man’s frown-lines. He says he splits his year between sailing the South China Sea and tending to his investment properties in this country.

Once you’re done chatting, he’s given a tour of the run-down bungalow by Neelam – seemingly for the first time. The owner of this half-a-million dollar asset appears never to have seen his own building. He takes cautious steps around the verandah, perhaps imagining he’s on the deck of his boat. He steps over a sun-brittled plastic buggy lying on its side, kicks a dog dish away.

At the end of the tour, the landlord leans against your broken fence and pulls your ear close to his lips.

‘By the way,’ he says, looking down his nose so you almost get a glimpse of his eyes, ‘I could use someone like you to check my assets for me, if you’re needing work. You’re not, like, agoraphobic or anything, are ya?’

‘I edit a financial magazine; I also publish action thrillers… well, I will, so long as my publisher gets off her behind and…. Anyway, I’m gainfully employed, but thank you.’

He pushes the sunglasses back up his furrowed nose. ‘I just assumed you didn’t have much goin on, since you’ve been monitoring these guys 24/7… .’

‘When you say check your assets for you, d’you mean keep an eye on tenants? A secret agent, of sorts?’

‘Tenants come and go. Bricks and mortar’s the part that stays, my friend.’ He hands you his business card. It’s thick and white and the corners are sharp. ‘Spies like us, huh? Hit me up if you wanna go pro. I need a kicker-outer. You do renos too?’

‘Beg your pardon?’

‘Renovations. Fix things. Like these windows here on the garage. Whack out the busted panes, chuck a new bitta glass in. That sound like you?’

‘I’d imagine that’s best left to the professionals.’

‘Well my friend, think about it. You’ll be saving me tonnes on a glazier. Paneless. Get it?’ He winks, makes a clucking noise out of the corner of his mouth. Ms. Gurunathan opens her convertible for him and he hops in and disappears. Onto the next property, presumably. Or the airport.

It’s settled, then. Gazza the window-breaker, the polluter of neighbourhoods, is moving on. Gareth Hendrix, whose last name prickles you with its non-traditional spelling, its pretentious X as if he’s trying to make a political statement.

Be a kicker-outer. The world needs people like you. You’re pretty sure he said it like that.

You set the alarm and lock the gate and phone security to tell them to monitor your home, even though you’re only popping down to Deli Delight. You pick up a kilo of salmon steaks, dill, unsalted butter, choux pastry, portobello mushrooms. Your Range Rover is parked in front of the laundromat. Amongst the dark den of washing machines there is music erupting from a portable speaker and people chattering. You see them and freeze, acid rising up through your groin. Gazza’s mob are draped across the laundromat like a still life painting, some sitting on washing machines, others lying on the floor playing games on their cellphones, spending a pointless day there in the dry warmth. You hoist your canvas shopping bag onto your shoulder to hide your face and scuttle past.

At supper, the vol-au-vent with truffle and fennel sauce tastes heavenly, garnished with praise you recite to your lover. The world needs people like you. Be a kicker-outer. 

Felicity throws down her knife and fork. ‘Is that what he said?!’

‘Words to that effect.’

You lean your chair back from the dinner table to dip your ears in the ambrosia that is the Jean-Francois Paillard chamber orchestra performing Pachelbel’s Canon distributed through a Dolby Atmos 5.1.4 wood panelled surround sound system. You stroke your wife’s hand as the third movement climaxes then put your fingers under her wrist and tug her to the bedroom.


With the ability to concentrate on your work, you ascend through the peerage of publishing. You get manuscripts completed and sent away, you get correspondence dispatched, you get acceptance, and cheques, and bylines. First there’s your longlisting in the Tom Clancy Awards for Action Thriller Writing. Then there’s a two-page spread in Saturday’s paper covering your six published novels, your biography of von Tempsky, not to mention your academic papers. What really accelerates your ascent is the telephone call directly from Penguin managing director Ferguson Chen, who says he has a talent acquisition manager looking for more titles specifically within the veteran-turned-mercenary action thriller genre you specialize in – so long as you can bring more spies into your books.

Indeed you can. The advance which Penguin pays you is a profound motivator to get more manuscripts completed. You purchase a Herman Miller Executive Size B Lumbar Support Aeron chair so you can truly write in style. It doesn’t fit in the boot of your Range Rover so you stop in at the dealership on the way home and upgrade to a roomier 2018 Tesla Model X.

That night, you and Felicity celebrate with tapas and a show – Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, a 2.5 hour return trip to the city centre and home, cringing as the car slows when you enter Calcutta Close. That prick neighbour’s probably having another party. That’s the night ruined.

You exhale with relief as you realize there is no sound on the street. The smashed windows of 148b are black and silent. You will never see Gazza again.


A van comes by one Wednesday. The vehicle hums and rumbles on the lip of the driveway. Perhaps workmen have been dispatched to clear away the car wreck and – hang on, who’s this – it’s the female, the fuckable wife, scampering inside the house, re-emerging with some bundle of fabric in her arms – the curtains?! The filthy devils have stolen – no. No, she’s spreading the big square cloth against the side of the van. It’s a quilt, yes, a quilt with gaily colored trains and tractors. Eager hands reach from the rear of the van and snatch the quilt.

The vehicle honks twice then disappears.

A honk aimed toward your house… and a wave. What could it mean?

You contact property manager Neelam Gurunathan hoping for advice on whether you need a restraining order.  Your guts are a pretzel of twisted angst. Ms. Gurunathan no longer works for Asset Advance, you’re informed. The new property manager, Jitesh Johnson, informs you the decision has been made to keep the house empty for a year to “increase its value.” 

Mr. Johnson breaks it down for you. It’s a formula known as TRA, or Tenant Risk Algorithm. The decreasing value of a property caused by suboptimal tenants is plotted on the Y axis of a three dimensional graph. Rising prices for the property are plotted on the X axis.  The Z axis shows the rental payments of the tenants, which restore some balance to the force tugging down the price of a house once it is no longer pristine.

‘It’s like when you drive your car off the lot, it loses half its value the moment it hits the street, sometimes better to leave a property empty, ‘specially when there’s heaps of demands from the rental crisis and stuff, know what I’m sayin’?’

You tell him that as the owner of a 2018 Tesla Model X you indeed know what he is saying.

Jitesh Johnson drops round to check the water meter at 4 pm and shakes your hand, strolling the driveway with you, tutting at the cracked fence, the crushed cans and glass crumbs tangled in the bushes.

‘Honestly, don’t worry about him getting revenge, these people are used to getting kicked out of places all the time,’ he explains. ‘They know it’s nothing personal. Listen, we got some seriously bad TRA scores with our applicants at the moment. If you know any good tenants needing a place, please send ’em my way.’

You inform the property manager you don’t mix with renters. Anyone with half a brain years ago got a deposit for a mortgage, signed up for the Reserve Bank newsletter and watched house prices push up from underneath like being on top of a fountain of spurting oil. 

The TRA thing is fascinating, though. You discuss it with Felicity as she tucks forkfuls of beef Wellington into her mouth, ruminating over the haves and the have-nots and how you can understand why sterilisation is offered to certain families and it’s really doing them a favour. After the main is cleared away, she moans over a delectable lemon gelato.

You squeeze in a quick three hours of writing before bed. There’s a rather wooden subplot about a vindictive villain your publisher has insisted you put in your latest novel. You stay up writing while Felicity snores, wearily adding a backstory about your Ukrainian baddie becoming enraged by a brutal landlord’s oppressive Tenant Risk Algorithm score when he was a young man. The score turned him into a remorseless anarchist. It’s a humane detail, you feel. Something about his mother being chucked out of her apartment into the gutter of a snowy Kiev December. A realistic motivation. Half-realistic, anyway. Next time you’re on a panel at a literary festival and you’re asked how you get inside the heads of such disturbed characters, perhaps you’ll reveal your genius.

Or perhaps you’ll chuckle quietly to yourself and play coy.


With the Laundromat People long-gone, life goes from strength to strength.

It’s not just being shortlisted to ghostwrite the new Jack Ryan book Explosive Decompression. It’s being asked to write a guest column for the Wall Street Journal. It’s the A+ from your cardiologist. It’s spinning your chair to face out the bay window and feeling powerful within your walls. It’s the limited edition Pony of the Penines 2000 piece puzzle from Berslfärne. It’s a matinee film at Rialto Cinema Deluxe watching Anna Netrebko sing Aida at the Met while you sip a tiny bottle of champagne and enjoy a choc top ice cream with pecan nuts. It’s the smiling faces and sensuous smells at Divine Deli on the way home. It’s gouda cheese and a macchiato and managing to walk past a family of beggars outside the exit without treading on their wet blanket, quilt, rag, whatever it is.

It’s the way your wife points her nose in the air as she hot-glues wires onto her sound installation. Felicity is about to display an exhibit at the art museum about how the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 inspired artists worldwide who mixed real volcanic ash into the pigment, creating an ephemeral movement known as Emergency Art. She bites her lip, strains her biceps to connect the wire to the diode and…. Light! She has light!

You wrap your arms around her flesh. She snuffles with nose and lips, asks you what makes you think you’re worthy of her donating her body to you.

You’re happy, that’s what. You’ve succeeded in demonstrating to deviants that anti-social conduct will result in punishment. It’s safe to have visitors round for dinner parties again.

And you’ve become a lion of publishing. It’s hard to put it in words for Felicity, though you’re sure she senses it. A don, a silverback. A hero. You want her to join you in celebration of yourself. Happiness rediscovered.

That happiness begins with a good hard shag on the carpet, changing position four times so your backs and thighs don’t hurt too much. Your kisses afterward are wet, sloppy, careless, your lips smeared on her eyes, her lashes on your tongue, her hand on your hammering heart.


On Pier Four, overlooking wrinkled green water, a photographer is taking photos of you with the wind flicking your scarf so those who check out your book jacket photo know you live in moody tempest.

The angst becomes real halfway through the shoot. You smell cigarette smoke, hear cans crinkled and dropped on concrete and a distinctive belch. He must be near. Your suspicion is confirmed when your ears are alerted, mid-photo, to a certain phlegmy hacking of the throat coming from the playground. They’re here – the riff raff. The ferals. The Hendrix child’s vile cough is followed by the mother telling the child to shut up. The boys are riding a roundabout. No coats on the children, despite the drizzle. The family is amongst a pile of suitcases and laundry bags parked on a picnic table, Gazza pacing and smoking and talking on his phone, hunched in a hoodie, evidently waiting for someone to take the family somewhere. 

‘YO, NEIGHBAAA!’ comes the spear of noise. It lands between your shoulder blades, pinning you. Creep away, pretend you haven’t heard and you may receive a blow to the back of the head. Escape is impossible. Besides, Dan Drayton wouldn’t run.

‘Oh, hi,’ you say, and swallow. He comes jogging over, surprisingly sprightly, as if upbeat. Happiness derived from, what? Intoxicants?

‘Mr. Hendrix… .’

‘It’s Gazza, bro. I seen you doing your camera shit. Lookin flash, cuz. Just wanted to say laters, cheers for bein neighbours and all that.’ He’s short, up close, and what appeared through your binoculars to be muscle is simply bosoms and chubby arm fat. He sticks out his hand to shake. There are three watches on his wrist. ‘Might see you round, my bro.’

What does the inflection on round mean? Is it a promise? A threat? A plea for shelter?

A child’s face appears between his thighs as if he’s just given birth. The boy crawls through Gazza’s legs, runs excited laps around the man. ‘Can we stay here and play, daddy, pleeeeease?’

‘Course, son, course,’ he tells the boy, ‘Got four hours to fuckin kill. Shelter ain’t open til dinner time.’

He looks at you hard, squinting, cocks his head like he’s just been insulted or surprised. He reaches out, smears a knuckle across your wet cheek. Stray raindrops appear to have landed on your eyes.

‘Don’t worry bout us, cuz,’ he says. ‘Snot your fault. Dry those eyes, my bro.’

Your photographer is loading his gear into the car. He dithers, keeps his back to you as he slams the boot shut. He says he can’t photograph you if you’re crying.

He’s utterly mistaken about the allegation of supposed crying, but the shoot’s over. Your face is flushed red, your eyes pink, nose raw. Not tears though, you insist. Just a cold.


You’ve spent all week researching the protocol for an authentic Japanese degustation. After drinks and gossip and stowing everyone’s coats, you begin with the kaiseki. Each item of food is served on the dining table so everyone can sit up properly. You can hardly expect yourself or your guests to kneel Oriental-style, what with Gladys’s steel hip and your slipped disc from years hunched over the desk.

It’s freezing outside. The trees slap wetly against the windows. Leaves stick to the glass. The fireplace grunts as the wood shifts in the flames. Your guests enjoy a shokuzen-shu of fiery sake. After a sakizuke of oyster follows the hassun, grilled tofu with wasabi, then a takiawase of simmered soy beans, carrot and bacon.

Maura Sanders, unimpressed with the slow reveal of the ten courses, makes a joke about starving to death, which causes Felicity to lament that news report surely everyone’s seen about that DREADful famine in North Korea. Richard Sager postulates we should hear the dictator out and that this Kim Jong-Un must be a satirist method actor of unrealized genius. His riposte gets you all chortling, your warm humour topped up with spicy liquor.

Between the mukozuke, futamono and yakimono courses, a playful argument brews with indignant snorting, explosions of laughter, refills of bubbles. From the discussion of global concerns arises a debate over the threat of climate change. The inability of low-lying nations to respond is discussed. The fate of uneducated poor people is lobbed about the table like a beachball, which reminds Maura Sanders: whatever became of those reprehensible redneck neighbours of yours?

You begin telling the story with a disclaimer that Gazza Hendrix has had many options. He was privileged to have had civil neighbours who allowed him an extremely long leash, considering the dole bludger didn’t have to get up for work any day of the week. What’s manifestly unfair to taxpayers is 44 percent of supposedly poor people actually collect benefits which, added up, give net income greater than that enjoyed by legitimately hard workers. You cite your sources. Everybody’s nodding, except James Boxleitner, who counters that in his eight years on the board of Salvation Station the divide between middle class, working poor and benefit-dependent shrank every six months until there was no divide left whatsoever. He cites his own sources. Our world is unfortunately choked, in the centre, by economic forces pushing aspirational families back down the ladder to keep them from receiving wealth re-distributed from the one percent, he claims. We see it when good people can’t get houses and have to live in neighbourhoods full of broken windows. It’s not their fault they’re forced into conditions of hopelessness.

‘Economics is the answer, not eugenics,’ he says, staring at you hard till you’re forced to look away.

Felicity stands in front of you and informs Boxleitner that actually a certain Malcolm Gladwell not long ago addressed these very same concerns and sided with you. So there.

‘GLADwell?!’ James Boxleitner sniggers, ‘That flip-flopper?!’

By 2008, Malcolm Gladwell was, at every appearance, publicly accepting that Broken Windows was a failure whitewashed by a mayor who sold it as an effective system when it was in fact the opposite, Boxleitner explains. Broken Windows policies caused naïve juvenile window-breakers to enter the criminal justice system and become convicted felons, permanently altering the course of their lives, destroying their chance at getting a career, a mortgage. No right to vote or get a business loan or lease a place to live.

‘So effective council monitoring of bylaw breaches is all that’s needed in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, you understand?’ Boxleitner continues. ‘Not crucifying people for blowing off steam now and again. Jesus Christ, that broken windows thing’s been discredited for a decade. You oughta get out of the house more.’

The table laughs. Your collar burns.

‘It doesn’t change anything,’ Felicity interjects, shielding you with her middle. ‘Have some more Chianti.’

‘This stuff is $200 a bottle.’ Boxleitner has to peer far around Felicity’s waist to look you hard in the eyes.

 ‘Auction it; let me auction it. I’ll give the proceeds to Salvation Station. You said you had two in the cellar.’

‘Boys!’ Felicity lays the su-zakana loudly on the table then hurriedly fetches the shiizakana and naka-choko. Sasha Gould changes the subject. She has eight days in Kyoto booked for the northern spring. The Sanders talk about their 10 day cruise of the Alaskan fjords. Felicity dishes out the tome-wan then the mizumono. Everybody groans with delight, pausing periodically to wipe their lips with silk napkins and gush compliments.

As coffee and brandy are being served and you’re stacking plates beside the sink, Boxleitner pulls you conspiratorially into the laundry. There’s a load of washing on; the room is warm and smells comforting. Boxleitner says he’s doing his Ph.D. in social anthropology and would be delighted to get in touch with that nasty neighbour of yours for a research interview. You’re happy to help, though when you go to write down where to find the family, you’re stumped. All you can do is describe the rainy playground, the wet quilt on the cold concrete.