By Danka Scholtz von Lorenz
Grinning? Beaming? Smirking? Zipper-mouth face? I was scanning the gallery, trying to decide which emoji to paste under the post I’d written, when I heard Sybil shuffle into my study. Instinctively, I leaned over to block the screen. I’d become weary of her rantings about how emotionally illiterate people are: Do we need dumb pictures to express ourselves? and such like.
I clicked “Send” and swivelled round to face her.
Hands on hips, she was hovering behind my chair, growing impatient with every second. I could feel tension emanating from her body and there was that ominous look on her face I knew so well.
“Come outside,” Sybil said, and turned on her heel, motioning for me to follow..
On the verandah, she plopped herself down on the chair. Facing her, a laptop on her end of the table, half buried under pages and pages of chaotic notes scribbled in longhand. A mug streaked with coffee spills gone dry and an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts weighted down rims of blank sheets. Sybil was writing again.
“What?” I asked.
“Can’t you hear?”
Now that I strained my ears, I could hear a distant whine.
“Someone’s cutting bricks,” I said hopefully.
“Listen,” she growled.
Just then, our neighbours’ front door flew open, freeing the drone of Scott’s guitar.
I turned to go back inside.
“You quite pleased with yourself?” Sybil said in a strained voice.
I leaned against the doorjamb. “Yeah, why?” One didn’t have to be a psychic to detect suppressed rage churning within her.
Sybil pointed with her chin at the house. “Nice and quiet in there, isn’t it?”
I gave a little shrug. I’ve long learned to avoid emotional pitfalls, finding it easier to take Scott’s sonic intrusions in my stride.
Looking into the distance, Sybil sighed. “I’ll never finish my novel,” she announced in a hollow voice. It echoed the finality of a sealed tomb.
“We’re lucky he doesn’t play the saxophone,” I said, and went inside.
It all started soon after they’d moved in. At first everything was fine. We were aware of their presence, of course, though the noise they generated did not reach levels we wouldn’t be able to tolerate. But then, Scott bought himself a guitar.
We tried to be patient. I would smile indulgently, willing to tolerate his atrocious strumming – he was a beginner, after all – but as we proceeded through the stations of Scott’s musical calvary, Sybil’s capacity to endure this torture had reached its limit. It was unfortunate, as notwithstanding this minor drawback, they were really nice people.
By the end of winter our neighbours were fully settled into a life of blissful domesticity. When he was not occupied with tidying his garden, which required the use of a blower, a mower, whipper-snipper or high-pressure cleaning equipment, Scott devoted his free time to the task of mastering his technique. Yet the man couldn’t play to save his life. I could picture him on the porch, in that rocking chair of his, with the guitar in his lap and a pleased-with-himself grin on his face. Flogging to death his bastardised renditions of the real thing, he provided fodder for Sybil’s discontent.
“Who the hell does he think he is? Chuck Berry?”
When at her lowest, Sybil would threaten to pinch the G-string from Scott’s guitar and garrotte him.
“Try to meditate,” I said on one particular occasion, when Sybil had reached critical mass for spontaneous combustion. I suggested she try to mentally block the noise and concentrate on her writing. “By overreacting, you only harm yourself.”
Sybil gave me a pitying look. “Easy for you to say,” she exclaimed. “I can’t even hear my own thoughts.”
“Take a deep breath. Hold it. Breath out slowly. Imagine a beautiful green pasture, with black-and-white cows grazing by a stream.”
For a moment, Sybil appeared to contemplate the mental image I’d painted. But when I thought the crisis was over and started to congratulate myself for my powers of suggestion, Sybil yelled at full voice: “Fuck the cows and the stream!”
On the whole, the man wasn’t worth losing sleep over, except that he, or rather his music, had the propensity of being – much too often – in our face. Continuous exposure to Scott’s acoustic excesses had released a dark sadistic streak in Sybil that bordered on the psychopathic. Inventing elaborate strategies for not only insulting the man but inflicting pain or outright killing him gave her a profound pleasure. Should I be concerned, then? Was it simply a case of mental exhaustion that had found relief in her runaway imagination, or a sign of perversion?
Possible Course of Action: Variant 1
Go next door. Announce yourself when at the gate. Join offender on porch and distract him with light-hearted chit-chat. Ask to let you examine his guitar. Retiring to safe distance, cut each guitar string with garden secateurs. Speed is essential.
When Scott wasn’t playing guitar, he subjected us to a medley of 1970s favourites. At full volume. It made Sybil want to scream into her keyboard.
“What’s in his head!”
I remained silent, understanding it to be a rhetorical question.
She snatched a cigarette from the packet, lit up. “Nothing!” she shrieked. And then: “What year are we in?” Again, she answered her own question: “2019.”
Sybil jumped up from her chair. In exasperation, she began pacing up and down. Suddenly, she spun around to face me. “Half a fucking century!” she cried out. Holding my eye, she savagely ground out her half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray. “And the idiot still listens to the same old shit! As if nothing happened since the 70s. Nothing! Nada! Null! Zero!”
She was about to hyperventilate.
Although, unlike Sybil, I had never been inclined to dwell on the idiosyncrasies of the human mind, after months of listening to the sound of that dreaded soft rock, I myself was beginning to question Scott’s sanity.
Possible Course of Action: Variant 2
Go next door. Walk calmly up into their porch. Don’t bother trying to engage offender in conversation. Seize his guitar and smash it on the ground.
An hour later, the music was still pumping. I went outside. A band of enthusiastic musos were hacking away at their instruments on the track while a world-weary lead singer grumbled about love lost or something.
“Baa-b Dylan.” Sybil raised her eyebrow in surprise. “Don’t you know?”
What the hell does she know? A man in his prime, working seven days a week – on the shovel, lugging bricks, mixing mud – I had a wife to feed, and kids. Listening to rock, never mind how hard or soft, was the least of my concerns.
During the months of that first summer Scott concentrated on mastering The House of the Rising Sun. It was a disaster. To start with, he skipped the instruction on learning the complete scale of notes, strumming chords instead. Too dumb to learn alternate picking, he would strum every available string with a downstroke. And struggled immensely to emulate chords in the song, mangling them terribly. It was obvious that Scott did not know how to use his fingers, and we began to suspect that he was afraid of his guitar; held in a death grip, it emitted an irritating buzzing noise. It was like whining of a mosquito, only louder and more persistent. Despite the endless hours of practicing, he never really moved past this stage.
Possible Course of Action: Variant 3
Climb silently over fence. Circle house. Enter porch from opposite end. Apply carefully aimed kick at rocking chair (when properly executed the manoeuvre should send offender reeling from porch). Twist his arms behind his back. Tie arms to legs with guitar string. Crumble sheet music into ball. Stuff ball into offender’s mouth. Leave note: Wife next. Remember to put house on market. Consider ordering one-way tickets for selves to Cayman Islands.
We survived the swelter of the summer months by taking refuge in the sanctuary of our house: I – retreating into my study; Sybil – setting up camp in her bedroom. The steady drone of the aircon, books and Nordic Noir crime series on TV had saved her not only from the heat but the tedium of living next-door to Scott. Our return to reality was like emerging from an air raid shelter – stumbling out on shaky legs, blinking in the glare of daylight.
It was a welcome change. With the exception of an occasional unseasonably hot day, there followed a long period of balmy weather which held till well after Easter, though there was a hint of chill in the evenings, and the air often smelled of rain. Without our noticing it, the wet had crept up on us. That’s when Scott decided to narrow down his focus by shifting his attention from The Animals to The Eagles. After months of enduring The House of the Rising Sun, we were now subjected to a new torture.
I cringed when I saw Sybil on the doorstep: standing still, like a pillar of salt. I could tell from the vacancy in her eyes and flared nostrils that she had transported herself in her mind to Scott’s porch, fixing to silence him with a mortal blow, once and for all. But that was only fantasy. Meanwhile, blissfully unaware, Scott continued twanging out his ghastly approximation of Hotel California. Sybil burst into tears.
Possible Course of Action: Variant 4
Creep behind bushes (avoid detection at all cost). Pounce on offender and put him in headlock. Apply firm pressure to either side of his mouth to force it open. Ram The Eagles CD into his mouth and The House of the Rising Sun single up his arse. Make mental note to reschedule travel arrangements for selves to earlier date.
I pride myself on being able to keep my cool. Not Sybil. When something sets her off, she is capable of emitting a ceaseless moan so pitched, it grates on my nerves. I was beginning to wonder what’s worse – Scott’s strumming or Sybil’s complaining.
“I can’t take it anymooore!”
“Get used to it,” I snarled at her. “It’s not really that loud.”
Her eyelids fluttered as if she couldn’t focus her eyes. Stabbing the air with her forefinger, she protested, “Stop defending him!’ You’re supposed to defend me.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” I erupted. “What d’you want me to do? Kill the bastard?”
We ended up having a dreadful row.
With the arrival of winter, we were able to enjoy some respite from the racket. Unlike the majority of people, we welcomed the sudden downpours and operatic storms, since they were the surest means of keeping Scott and his brood indoors. For the first time in months, we could enjoy the tranquillity of nature: hear the sounds of birds, of rainwater babbling inside the downpipe. Huddled around the chimenea, we would listen to the rain pelting against the roof of the veranda, contemplating the quietude of our garden. But most importantly, Sybil was able to get back to her writing.
June came and went, then July, making room for August with its “monkey’s wedding” days. It drizzled a lot, but we had days with showers even while the sun was shining.
To our disadvantage, the change in weather conditions had encouraged Scott to venture outside. As he had resumed his post on the porch and the serenading commenced, I noticed a worrying shift in Sybil’s demeanour. There was no bawling or cussing or the usual hysterics. Instead, Sybil became silent and withdrawn. Rain or no rain, she would go for long walks, from which she often returned soaked right through, wet to the bone.
“This won’t end well,” she said once.
“Don’t be such a prophet of doom,” I replied. I had no time for her gloomy forebodings.
I had noticed, with alarm, that I was also beginning to harbour ill feelings towards our neighbour. Once or twice, I’d caught myself plotting schemes to harm him.
The problem with Sybil was that she was a highly strung, sensitive introvert. The fatality of artistic persuasion doomed her to perpetual struggle with herself, turning her sojourn in the world of literature into something precious yet problematic. She was like a yo-yo spinning alternately upward and downward – buoyant with optimism when inspired, then sinking down into the dungeons of depression.
Unable to reach her, I watched with a pang of guilt her forlorn silhouette grow faint and fade into the rain. The day of retribution was not long in coming.
Christmas was fast approaching, which made me tense and jittery. It may be a time of love and joy for some people – but not for us. As I braced myself for the worst, in an unexpected twist of fate an opportunity for respite landed in our lap.
“She is here,” I whispered, indicating the front door with a jerk of my head.
Anette came bearing gifts: an impressively large jar full of brightly coloured sweets and a Christmas card.
“Oh, how lovely!” Sybil cooed in a cloyingly sweet voice.
The false note aside, Sybil was surprisingly accommodating. Coffee had been offered. Biscuits. As both women engaged in a light-hearted banter, I took the card from the envelope. Predictably banal. Galloping reindeer. Sled. It was chock-a-block with elves blowing trumpets. Looked like they were off their tits. I squinted, searching for Santa. Ha! There he was, smack in the middle of the merry bunch, holding reins and sporting… what? Hang on …that’s right: a tiny guitar slung across his chest. I slid the card across to Sybil. We exchanged looks. Was it a deliberate act of provocation?
I considered Anette’s open face, her easy manner, and felt a little ashamed of myself banning instantly from my mind the undue suspicion. The lady comes across as an unpretentious, homely woman fond of her simple life and housework. No, she hadn’t an evil bone in her body.
As our small talk started to dwindle, I decided it was time to broach the subject. I urged Anette to put herself in our position, at the same time watching her response. I used tact and consideration, trying to appeal to her heart, making her see the predicament of the people on the other side of the fence. But, hey, how can one explain to a woman without hurting her feelings that her husband is a fruitcake?
Anette listened. Nodded. Smiled. Then said:
“There’s no way I’m going to tell Scotty to stop playing guitar.”
Sybil fixed our visitor with a basilisk eye. “We’re not asking Scotty to stop playing. Only that he plays inside the house?”
“My husband works very hard and his only pleasure is music.” Anette shook her head. “No. This is out of the question.”
“But what about us?” Sybil cried.
“You can’t expect a person to learn to play the guitar overnight.”
We continued in this vein for a little while until Sybil put her foot in her mouth.
“How can you stand that noise?” she demanded. “If I was you, I would’ve divorced him by now.”
Well done, Sybil, I thought to myself. A woman scorned is just what we need.
Possible Course of Action: Variant 5
Ask spouse for assistance. Go next door. Briskly climb porch steps (don’t give them time to think). Order wife, son and daughter to lie face down on floor. Threaten with burning the whole place down (optional). While spouse holds them at gunpoint, snatch guitar out of offender’s hands. Smash it on his head. Kneel on floor with offender wedged firmly between knees. Ignoring his pleas force his head into guitar case. Slam top down onto his neck repeatedly. Be rough about it. Leave home immediately. Head west (with intention of disappearing into wilderness of Central Australia).
Contrary to our expectations, the festive season turned out surprisingly peaceful. Soon after the exchange, our neighbours loaded the car and headed for their holiday cottage in the Blue Mountains.
“We got off scot-free,” Sybil quipped, chortling with glee at her own pun.
I groaned. Scott’s absence had its downside. It had lulled us into a false sense of security.
A month went by, then another. Meanwhile, the family had returned from their vacation, yet there was no sign of Scott. Could it be that Anette had taken Sybil’s advice to heart?
I’d set up our chimenea in the middle of the lawn out back of the house. There were old tax records to be burned, and some offcuts from the workbench I was building.
Sybil sauntered over. She stood watching me for a while, and then said:
“Is this wise? We are not supposed to have open fires in summer.”
“This is not an open fire. Don’t worry about it.”
Sybil was not her usual self. She had been moping around. Starting on something,
then dropping it. And she had stopped writing.
I regarded her for a moment. “Do you miss him?”
Sybil shot me a glance but said nothing.
I watched her walk back to the veranda.
Sometimes I have an urge to ask Are you happy, Sybil? but never get around to it. There are questions better left unasked. Unlike Sybil, who believes that things happen for a reason, I never subscribed to the notion that we’re a plaything of fate. A higher power. A grand plan. Destiny. A preordained script for our life, blah-bloody-blah… Nah, that’s not me. A greater purpose? Bah! How am I to believe that some omnipotent force of the universe, some God sitting on a cloud, knows what’s best for me? If that’s the case, then why send Scott into our lives?
I started to feed the chimenea.
Life is what you make of it, I say. Give you an example. Scott started to get under our skin, right? So what did I do? TALKED to his wife. And voila! Problem solved, no?
“Just so,” I mumbled to myself. “Scott’s back!” I shouted over the noise of his leaf blower.
Yep, Scott was back.
He was now done with his gardening and having a nourishing lunch – I could hear their forks scraping on plates – after which all hell broke loose. Live at the River Plate, a recording of the 2009 ACDC concert in a Buenos Aires soccer stadium where they played to 200,000 rabid fans. It was as if a meteor had crashed into Scott’s house.
Don’t get me wrong. I like ACDC. But this was too much. I dropped my tools and went back to join Sybil on the veranda.
“They had once played at a school for deaf children, did you know that?” I shouted.
“Deaf – before the concert, or after?”
Invigorated by his long absence from home, Scott appeared to have redoubled his determination to ruin our lives. He was bombing us with high volume and low frequency bass. It was hell. I looked at Sybil’s tormented face. We were like a couple of moth-eaten old farts stranded at Woodstock.
After Scott finished abusing his stereo, he started playing guitar. Welcome to the fucking Hotel California. I counted fifteen takes – one after another. But that’s not all. Scott had found a novel way of inflicting pain. As if his strumming wasn’t bad enough, he began to sing. Son of a bitch! A talentless, tone-deaf noise polluter, he was a hazard to public health.
“He’s doing it on purpose,” Sybil said, blowing a puff of smoke into the air. “Don’t you see?” She was chain-smoking.
“I know, I know. What can I do? Call the cops?”
Sybil scoffed at me.
Baa-baa, baa-aaa, baa.
“Got a better idea?” I asked.
Scott sounded like a sheep being neutered, the bleating setting my teeth on edge. Tedious, insistent, flat as a cowpat. What is it, I wondered, that allows such an abomination of human voice to lodge itself in one’s brain? Coiling itself into a diabolic loop, it gags your inner voice and derails trains of thought.
“You are the man. Do something,” Sybil droned. “Man’s job is to protect his woman.”
“Maybe you should go next door and talk to him.”
I wanted to strangle her. “Go yourself, damn it! Have a reunion.”
I have no idea what made me say that. Maybe I had a death-wish. My sarcastic
comment must have ignited something in her, a smouldering rage, a thirst for revenge.
Glowering at me, she stood abruptly, threw her ciggy on the ground.
“Trying to be a hero?” she hissed.
“Sybil, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry now, are you?” She was seething.
She narrowed her eyes at me. “I thought that when I walked out of my fucked-up marriage, I left all that crap behind me,” she said. “Maybe I was wrong.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “What d’you mean?”
“Putting up with a selfish, parasitic piece of shit–”
There it was. Finally, Sybil had laid bare the reason behind her resentment that had crept between us. A sickening buzzing sound filled my brain and I could taste bile on my tongue.
“–and a coward.” She thrust out her chin as if to challenge me.
“A coward,” I repeated in a strangled voice. I was about to explode. As I reached for her arm, Sybil slapped my hand away.
I lost my temper. “Fuuuck!” As I yelled, I upended the table. Coffee mugs, her ashtray, the whole lot crashed to the ground. Things rolled off, bounced across the floor; cigarette butts everywhere.
Slamming the door behind me, I went inside.
Sybil was sweeping pieces of broken ceramic into a dust pan. She rose to her feet and watched me wrestle the door as I was lugging the speakers out to the veranda.
“What you doing?”
“Beating the prick at his own game.”
I dropped the cables on the table (Sybil had righted it) and started rummaging in an ice cream container I brought, looking for the right fitting. I uncoiled the cables and connected them to the laptop. Thank Christ it wasn’t on the table when I’d lost it.
I cranked up the volume and pressed “Play,” and was instantly assaulted by the sound. Involuntarily, I clamped hands over my ears, fearing that the noise would burst my eardrums.
We started with Beethoven’s Eroica, then moved on to the Ride of The Valkyries. Finishing off with Sacrificial Dance from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. When it was over, the sound still ringing in my ears, I thought I had gone deaf. Couldn’t hear a thing. But no, it was there, drifting across to us. Feeble, pathetic, the relentless drone of Scott’s guitar.
“I can’t believe this.”
“I know,” Sybil exclaimed. “Captain Beefheart!” She bent over the laptop, searching. “Right.” She found it. “Bat Chain Puller.”
“Give it shit!”
A deafening sound roared out from the speakers. I leaned back in my chair, lost in the rhythmic thumping of the imaginary windshield wipers on Vliet’s beat-up car. The throb of the bass was so powerful, I could feel my teeth rattle.
Then it stopped.
Bleary-eyed, we looked at each other. At first, I could hear nothing but the throbbing of blood in my ears. We listened.
Sybil’s eyes went as round as dinner plates. For a moment she was speechless. But before I could get a word in, she reeled off a string of curses so vile in their profanity that I had to inwardly congratulate her on the originality of her vision.
We tried punk, hard rock… Black Sabbath… Metallica… None of it did any good.
“Aaaaagggrhhh!” Sybil bawled at the fence. “Stop that fucken noise, you idiot!”
The whole exercise was self-defeating. I turned off the laptop and walked across the lawn. I opened the door on the chimenea, fed it the remaining offcuts, then checked my benchtop and started hammering the nails in. Next thing, I saw Sybil dragging behind her a heavy-duty industrial extension. She was holding an angle-grinder.
“Don’t you need to trim off the sides?”
Sybil switched the grinder on. Bweeeeee. Bweeeeeee, the blade went through the timber. She looked up at me, her face beaming.
I shook my head. “That’s not loud enough.”
I calmly walked to the garage, and came back with my chainsaw. This was war. I put it on the ground, used my foot to brace it, then gripped the handle with one hand, leaning my weight on it to hold it in place. With the other hand, I pulled the starter cord. I had to pull a couple of times before the engine farted into life.
“Yee-haah!” Sybil whooped with delight.
I pushed the throttle trigger, revved up the speed. It roared, a visceral sound that drove right into your bones. I touched the blade to the wood and started cutting. The saw whirred, growled, snarled, screamed. It was so intoxicating, I had lost myself in the task. Ping-ping-ping, a metallic ring as the chainsaw teeth hit the nails. It was freedom!
I switched off the ignition.
Scott refused to be beaten.
I looked at Sybil. She just stood there chewing the inside of her cheek when suddenly her eyes widened with a flash of inspiration. She made a dash for the shed at the back of the yard, shoved the door open and disappeared inside. A few minutes later, she emerged with a large cardboard box in her arms.
She ripped the carton open. “This will take care of him,” she said.
I took a peek inside it. “Have you lost your mind?” I hollered. It was my old stash of fireworks I had forgotten about.
“Don’t be a wuss,” Sybil snapped, stacking up an armful of rockets. “They’re only cardboard shells packed with glitter.”
“You’re not – are you?”
I watched in disbelief as she knocked the lid off the chimenea and proceeded to shove the fireworks down the smoke vent. Before I could protest, she grabbed the lid, obviously intending to put it back on. Bloody idiot! I seized her by the arm and dragged her away.
At first, nothing happened.
As we stood waiting, I started to think that the fireworks were duds when a hell of an explosion knocked us off our feet. A giant ball of flame shot into the sky and the fireworks continued to go off uncontrollably in every direction, setting dogs barking and car alarms blaring. It was like Apocalypse Now – rockets whistling, lawn chairs flying, two palms on fire; there was smoke everywhere. I could hear a wail of sirens in the distance.
The blast was so strong it blew the chimenea apart. Chunks of flaming iron rained from the sky, turning the neighbourhood into a war zone. I found out later that they’d started the verge fire nearby and damaged a car two blocks away.
Today, as we speak, Sybil is having a rest. At The Gladesville Mental Hospital, formerly known as The Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum, where she has been committed by the judicial system for treatment. It was to be expected. She had not only resisted arrest, but when the police officers turned up at the front door, Sybil screamed at them: “Welcome to the Hotel California!” after which she broke into demented laughter. I suppose the stay at the institution will do her some good. She had often moaned about needing a holiday.
We were both charged with reckless conduct and criminal damage, but, luckily, the charges were dismissed. We had to say goodbye, though, to a good deal of our savings – due to fines, damages and legal costs.
You might wish to hear about our neighbours. There’s not really much to report. I haven’t seen Anette, nor the children, for quite some time. Don’t know. Maybe she’d decided on a change of the scenery and is staying at her mother’s. Scott wouldn’t say.
And Scott? I am pleased to say that we seem to get along pretty well. We like to catch up and shoot the breeze. Sometimes I help him fix his equipment. The other day, he had, unasked, mowed my front verge. Maybe we have something to bond over. I mean, the women missing from our lives. See, I am not a jealous man. And I don’t care about the fact that Sybil and Scott had once been married to each other. It’s in the past.
As for Scott playing his guitar… Well, he got tired of it and bought himself a ukulele.