Saturday, August 28, 2004

Neighbourhood drama (Part I)

Our water almost got cut off this week. The water bill arrives every two months, not monthly like the other bills, and we didn't notice we hadn't paid it for a while. They sent us two reminders, as well as the original bill, and one final notice threatening to cut us off.

The problem was we didn't get any of these bills. We have a new postie, and as I've mentioned before Japanese addresses aren't very helpful, and to make matters worse the name on our water bill is our landlord's. Well, actually his father's (who has died), and since the landlord's mad sister lives next door and has the same family name they decided to ignore the numbers and deliver the bills to her.

Fortunately for us the water company sent someone round yesterday, and we were able to sort out the problem.

Just now the postie turned up with the bills. He told us that he had fished them out of the landlord's mad sister's letter box, which, he said, was full.

Now we have something new to worry about.

This woman is a sad case. She is borderline. Obviously she is able to live alone, since she has done for years. She fiercely resisted attempts to get her rehoused after the earthquake when her house was deemed unsafe for habitation, and there is no law to stop her from living in it. It jumped off its foundations and has been leaning a few millimetres more every year, so that now her roof and ours touch. This is why we have a greatly reduced rent. A builder friend told us that if her house fell (actually he said 'when' but I try not to think about it too much) it would fall in, not over, probably causing some damage to our bathroom and kitchen, but it wasn't very dangerous for us. Our living rooms are on the other side of the house. It adds a thrill to bathtime, though, especially when it's windy. Bits of plaster occasionally fall off the wall and make a huge clattering noise, and the next thing you know you're standing naked and dripping out in the hallway, wondering how you got there. It's that exaggerated startle reflex thing again. You never know when it's going to kick in. (Incidentally, our house was the only one in the block that did not need to be rebuilt after the earthquake. For some reason our landlord's father, when he had it built, spent a fortune on it and it was built to last. We were lucky.)

Our neighbour has always lived with the shutters up and everything locked up tight as a drum. We rarely see her, although every few months she will come over and ask to use our bath. Apparently she has not had hot water since the earthquake, and anyway I suspect her bathroom is full of collapsed tiles and junk. She never puts out anything on rubbish collection days. She didn't even put anything out after the earthquake, when we all had house-sized piles of broken stuff outside on the road. Her front door is still upright, but the door frame itself is leaning sideways so that there are huge gaps, which she has taped over. I don't want to think about what it looks - or smells - like inside. The Man has been in a couple of times, and tells me it's worse than anything I could imagine. (The entire neighbourhood offered to help clean up after the quake, and were refused with screaming and angry insults.)

When the city government offered her new, low-rent housing to live in after the quake, she was furious and accused them of trying to take over her life. This was after she had told a reporter that her house had collapsed around her and the city government didn't care and wasn't doing anything to help her. Our policy has been, always, to be polite and friendly with her and to help her when we can, but not to interfere.

We often don't see her for months, but she has never stopped picking up her mail before. I'd been thinking recently she would probably come over to use the bath again soon, since it had been a few months, and it crossed my mind that she might be ill or have moved away. But she is quite young. I didn't think she might be dead.

Now I'm wondering.

I don't feel guilty about not checking earlier. This is the same woman who used to scream at her mother that she was going to kill her with an axe. Her mother was, if anything, madder, and died shortly after the earthquake (in a hospital, in case you were wondering). She gets very angry at anything that hints at interference, and when she comes to use the bath she is clearly embarrassed, and makes her request using a mixture of servile begging and threats to have her brother kick us out. She doesn't threaten us every time - sometimes she seems almost normal - but that's what she did last time. In fact her brother hates her, and has said so to us. (He is an odd bird himself, to put it mildly, but functions pretty well.)

The Man has gone off to find the neighbourhood ... leader. (I don't know what to call this person - someone who is in charge of the neighbourhood and keeps an eye on things.) He will leave it up to her to decide what to do. No doubt we will have the police around soon, breaking in and... I don't want to think about what they might find.

I'm not looking forward to this. Well, I am, in the sense that this is dramatic and while I don't like myself for it I do love a spectacle, and when the police get involved here you generally get a spectacle. But I also feel terribly sad that nobody noticed that something was wrong for so long. We are the nearest thing to friends that she has, her only family hates her (it's mutual, but still), and she doesn't get much mail. It must have taken at least a couple of months for her mailbox to fill up like that.

Of course, she might have just gone away somewhere. Or she may be there but have decided not to collect her mail from the letter box.

But it doesn't look good.

(Will update as events unfold.)