The irony is that Thelma and Bill were one of the reasons we moved to 21 Paperbark Place.
“Quiet, responsible, considerate neighbours are a must,” we told the real estate agent.
“Friendly and easy to get along with,” requested David.
“Law abiding,” I insisted.
Our previous neighbours were not just of the loud music, barking dogs, late night parties, not-mowing-their-lawn kind of bad neighbours, although they were that too. We’re talking methamphetamine-producing, drug-dealing kind of bad. Our wounds were still raw.
“I have the perfect place for you!” the estate agent exclaimed. “Quiet cul-de-sac, three bedroomed home, parkland on two sides, and the only neighbours a sweet, elderly couple.”
Six weeks later we moved in. Only hours after the removal truck had departed, Thelma and Bill were at our front door with a freshly baked cake. David smiled at me as if to say, “We’ve hit the neighbour jackpot.”
Over tea and cake, we exchanged the usual biographical details interspersed with pleasantries. When the couple heard that I was a doctor, Bill’s cataract-laden eyes lit up and Thelma’s arthritic back straightened as much as her kyphosis would allow.
“We’re looking for a new doctor,” Thelma said. “Our current doctor has gotten too busy. He makes you wait up to an hour…”
“No wonder they call us patients, you certainly need a lot of it!” Bill chimed in. He looked at us expectantly, hoping for a laugh.
I arranged my facial features into something resembling an amused grin while David, eager to please, chortled a little too loudly.
Thelma continued, “… and then once you finally get in to see him, he tries to shoo you out of the room as fast as he can. It is the medical equivalent of wham-bam-thank-you-mam.”
“That’s really funny, Thelma. You’ve both got such great senses of humour. Fantastic,” David gushed.
David’s displays of enthusiasm were clearly over the top but Thelma and Bill seemed to be lapping them up.
I had a feeling as to where this was going, so I tried to head them off at the pass. “I don’t work locally, but I can recommend someone that does if you like.”
It didn’t work.
“But you live right next door – we can just pop over whenever we need. Or you can come to us and charge Medicare for a house call – that pays more doesn’t it? Win-win!”
“That sounds all very good in theory, but actually…”
“I’m sure she’d be delighted to help you out with your medical needs,” my impulsive, ingratiating husband tells them. “Call anytime. After all, what are neighbours for?”
Later, while unpacking kitchen utensils, David realised that my excessive banging was a measure of my displeasure but he simply couldn’t understand my reluctance to treat Thelma and Bill. “They’re right. It’s a win-win. We’ll have appreciative and grateful neighbours and you’ll get paid for your time. How hard could it be?”
Famous last words.
Having their own personal physician on tap proved irresistible to the pair. I was called over for a litany of ailments including Thelma’s painful bunions, Bill’s ingrown eyelashes, and their dog’s rash. (“We don’t want to waste money on a trip to the vet, dear.”)
Six months in, my patience wearing dangerously thin, I received an urgent late night summons from Thelma.
Upon my arrival she said, “I know it’s late but we knew you were still up because your lights were on. We’re having a bit of a quarrel and hope you’ll be able to settle it so we can get some sleep.”
I was incredulous. “You want me to adjudicate your argument?”
“It’s medically related, dear. We wouldn’t get you over otherwise,” Thelma said indignantly. “You see, Bill wants to try Viagra. I told him that we are too old for that carry-on and anyway, his heart is too weak, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think there are any physical reasons why Bill can’t try Viagra but there are….”
“No physical reasons? Look at him – he’s fat, unfit and old. A walking heart attack. I refuse to have him drop dead when we’re in the middle of….”
Bill interrupted, “Shut up and let the doctor finish, will you woman!”
“As I was saying, there are other factors to consider. I believe it’s a decision for the couple to make, not just the man.”
Thelma smiled, triumphant. “That’s easy then. No Viagra.”
“Thanks a lot, Doc,” scowled Bill. “Why do you always take her side?”
I decided that it was time to take sides. My side. As a wise man once said, “Love thy neighbour but don’t pull down thy fence.”
Once back home I announced that my neighbourhood-doctor-on-tap days were over, but David convinced me to give Thelma and Bill another chance. “I’ll talk to them,” he said soothingly. “Lay down some ground rules about boundaries.”
Whatever David said seemed to work. I was left alone for a blissful three weeks.
The next call came at 4am on a Sunday. “It’s Thelma,” my husband said, his hand over the mouthpiece. “She says Bill is dying.”
“He bloody better be,” I muttered, still groggy with sleep.
He wasn’t dying. He was already dead – with his pants around his ankles and a satisfied grin on his face.
Thelma tearfully filled me in. Bill had been given a sample pack of Viagra by another doctor. Eager to try them out, but without a willing accomplice (Thelma had told him, “Over my dead body!” – ironic in retrospect), he’d decided to ‘self serve’. It appeared that his life had ended with a bang. He’d gone as he came.
At Bill’s funeral I showered Thelma with the usual sympathetic platitudes. She turned to me with accusing eyes, “I told you that his heart wasn’t up to it but you said he was fine.”
“He didn’t have any absolute contraindications.”
“Don’t hide behind your doctor talk. I knew it’d be too much for him. His sexual activities were always on the… strenuous side, unlike the rest of his life. You should have listened to me and told him it was too risky.”
I restrained from pointing out that I hadn’t prescribed the Viagra.
“I know you mean well, but I don’t feel comfortable with your being my doctor anymore. Not after this. What if you make a mistake like that with me?”
Mistake? I bit my tongue so hard it bled.
“I do hope this will not make things awkward for us as neighbours though. I know I was a good little money earner for you with all those house calls, but I think it’d be better if we give each other a little space.”
David didn’t see the snub in quite the same way as I did. “Who cares what the silly old biddy thinks of your clinical competence? She’s given you a free pass. I told you it’d work out OK, didn’t I?”
“Oh it worked out just fine, David. I volunteered you to mow Thelma’s lawn and take her bins in and out, now that Bill’s not around. I told her to call you anytime she needed a man’s help around the house. After all, what are neighbours for?”