By Dr. Marguerette Joyce Hill, 72. Adelaide, SA
Betty Boswell was awakened by the sound of weeping. She was a light sleeper. She glanced at the digital clock on her nightstand. It was almost midnight. Keiko was in trouble again. In the dark, Betty rose from under her covers and stood at the window of her bedroom which faced Keiko’s single-storey unit. She stood at the side of the window not touching the diaphanous curtains and watched. Keiko was sitting on her doorstep in her nightdress with her face in her hands. The temperature outside was at least 4 degrees Celsius. Keiko, shivering, stood and banged on the door with both her fists.
“Josef, open the door,” she screamed. “Josef! ….Josef! Let me in!” Her voice became increasingly louder till the door finally opened and Keiko pushed her way in.
Betty sighed, shook her head and climbed back into her warm bed. This was not the first time.
Betty and her husband Bob, had built and owned all four of the two – bedroomed, red brick units on the property on Gladstone Avenue. They built two semi-detached units, separated by their garages, on one side of the driveway and two identical ones on the other side. The front doors of one pair faced the front doors of the other. It was in a nice, quiet, upper-class neighborhood, close to the university where Bob had taught architecture. Bob passed away suddenly when he was only fifty-four, from a heart attack while walking through the hallways of the School of Architecture. Having had no children, Betty was left to grieve alone. She was very careful about whom she leased the other three units to. No riff-raff with their drug habits. No students with random friends bunking down for a night or two or three. No families with badly behaved, boisterous children. Cats were allowed but not dogs. Dogs were too noisy and destructive. They left doggie-doo-doos on pedestrian pathways and pristine lawns. Betty was quite partial to cats. She had two of her own, Oscar and Buttons. Betty craved a quiet life as she grew older. It was highly essential to her wellbeing. These vulgar dramas between Keiko and her husband Josef distressed her greatly. She and her cats occupied the first unit on the left of the driveway. The unit next to and attached to hers was leased to a young couple. The husband taught Physics at the university and the wife taught Psychology. On a Friday night, they had a rather rowdy party and Betty was not at all pleased. Betty was in her front garden on her knees the next morning tidying up a rose bed when the husband rolled their wheelie-bin to the side of the main road at the end of the driveway to be emptied by the council truck and the wife carried a case of empty beer bottles for the re-cyclers.
“Had a bit of a lively party last night,” said Betty without a smile as she awkwardly raised her plus-size frame to her feet.
“Yes Mrs. Boswell. Sorry about the noise.”
“I suppose you young people have to have your fun,” she said grimly.
“It won’t happen again, Mrs. Boswell. I promise,” he replied.
“I certainly hope not,” said Betty glowering at them over the top of her glasses. She watched the couple nudge each other giggling as they walked down the driveway with their rubbish. Betty was not amused.
Across the driveway from this couple, lived an older retired academic couple who spent most of the year visiting their children and grandchildren in England or New Zealand. They were never any trouble. Josef Kowalski, a gifted pianist and his Japanese wife Keiko, a violinist, lived directly across from Betty. They both taught music at the university. Betty watched apprehensively as they moved his grand piano in when they first arrived and wondered if there was enough room for it in their living room. Betty was also a little concerned about whether the music would be an annoyance but they played beautifully and never after eight in the evenings. It wasn’t the music that caused Betty displeasure. It was their constant squabbling and fighting. Keiko was a sweet woman and Betty took to her immediately. She was very young and attractive with luminous dark eyes set deep in her oval face and soft, straight long black hair. Josef, in Betty’s opinion was a temperamental pig who frequently bullied his wife. He was a short, thin, bespectacled man in his early forties, who spoke with a European accent. He was prone to bouts of moodiness and self-pity. Both he and Keiko, at separate times had knocked on Betty’s door only to be invited in to whine, weep and complain about the other.
Predictably, Keiko was at her door the next morning as soon as Josef had left for the university.
“He is horrible to me, Betty” she moaned miserably.
“Oh, I know dear,” replied Betty
“He hits me.”
“Oh, I know dear,” murmured Betty, looking at a dark bruise forming over Keiko’s left eye.
“He locked me out last night.”
“Yes dear, I know.” Betty crooned, pouring her another cup of tea.
“I’ve had enough. I’m going back to Japan to visit my mother for a while.”
“So you should dear,” agreed Betty, offering her another shortbread biscuit.
“Oh Betty, you are so very kind,” she smiled through her tears. “What would I do without you?”
“A problem shared is a problem halved, dear,” Betty replied sagely.
After that it was Josef’s turn, knocking on her door on the evening of the next day.
“Betty, Keiko has left me,” he wept.
“Oh, I know dear. Come in and have a cup of tea.”
“She’s so selfish.”
“Yes dear, I know.” She poured him a cup of Earl Grey.
“How could she do this to me?”
“I’m not sure dear,” Betty murmured, offering him a box of tissues to dry his eyes.
“I won’t be able to sleep and I have papers to grade and students to teach.” Sniffing loudly, he reached for another chocolate biscuit.
“You know, dear…if it will help… I have a few sleeping pills left over from when I lost my husband. The good Dr. Jones on Avery Street prescribed them. You’re welcome to some if you like.”
After a moment of hesitation, he said, “I will, if you don’t mind.” He blew his nose rather loudly which made Betty wince. Buttons brushed up against his leg and he shoved her away with his foot. Betty drew a sharp breath and pressed her lips tightly together. Josef, she could see, was not fond of cats. She rose to go to her bedroom. In her bedside table drawer, she found the plastic pill-container that contained the Tuinal. The prescription read, ‘Mrs. Betty Boswell. Tuinal 200mgs. Take one capsule at bedtime when required’. Betty put six capsules in a small clean envelope, two more in her apron pocket and went back to the living room where Josef cringed in the corner of the sofa, pushing her cats away from his feet with his shoe.
“Here you are, dear,” she said offering him the plain white envelope. “Just take two capsules at night. They are quite mild but they worked wonders for me. Would a little glass of something stronger help to cheer you up, dear? I think I have some white wine.” He nodded miserably. With her back to Josef, she poured out two glasses of white wine and emptied the contents of the two capsules from her pocket into his glass and gave it a quick stir with her finger.
Josef took a sip and grimaced.
“Oh dear,” said Betty. “A little bit off perhaps?” She took a large swig of hers. “Oh, not too bad,” she declared, encouraging him to finish his. A little embarrassed he drained his glass so as not to offend her.
“Well, I’ll be off now and try to get some sleep,” he sighed.
“You do just that, dear,” replied Betty rising to see him to the door. “Take a couple of those capsules I gave you. They’ll do the trick.”
About ten o’clock Betty watched the lights in Josef’s unit go out, first in the living room, them the one in the bedroom. The older couple next to Josef’s was away in England and the young couple next to Betty’s, was at a party. She had seen them drive off earlier with a gaily wrapped gift and a bottle of wine. They wouldn’t be back till the early hours of the morning. At half past eleven, Betty inserted her hands into a pair of thin rubber gloves and quietly slipped out of her front door. She crossed the driveway in the dim light of the moon and knocked gently on Josef’s door. No answer. She moved close to his pitch-black bedroom window. She stood perfectly still and listened to the reverberation of Josef’s snores. Stepping back to his front door, she took out her set of master keys. She chose one from the bunch and let herself into the unit shutting the door quietly behind her. Turning on a light in the hall way she crept into his bedroom His heavy snoring did not skip a beat. She shook him hard. The snoring continued uninterrupted. She reached for the white envelope lying on his bedside table next to a set of keys. By the light of the hallway, she saw that there were only four capsules left. He had to have taken two as she had instructed.
“Good lad,” she murmured. She put the envelope into her pocket with her bunch of keys. She considered his slight frame under the covers. She would not have a problem dragging him out to the garage.
She went back into the hallway and found her way through to his garage where his red Toyota was parked. A key from Josef’s set slipped easily into the ignition and she got to work.
The phone rang at the local police station the next morning.
“This is Mrs. Betty Boswell on Gladstone Avenue,” she said. ” I’m not sure if I’m being overly anxious,” she said steadily, “but I think something’s not quite right at my neighbor’s across the drive. Their car is in the garage but the engine has been running for quite a while now and no one is answering the door. I’m not too sure what to do.”
The police were there in no time. Betty produced her master keys at their request and stood obediently outside the door while they went inside to investigate. After a few minutes, a young ashen- faced policeman suggested that she go back to her unit and they would be around in a little while to talk to her. Meekly she complied and watched the whole performance from behind her lace curtains.
She dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief and stroked Oscar and Buttons on her lap when the policemen sat with her in her living room and broke the news that Josef had taken his own life. They had found him slumped over in the front seat of his car in the garage in his pajamas. A hose pipe attached to the exhaust was jammed into a partially opened window. He had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. She explained that Keiko had gone back to Japan and he was depressed. She hinted at a troubled marriage which the other neighbors later confirmed.
Keiko returned to make the funeral arrangements. Once again, she sat in Betty’s living room sipping a cup of tea, being comforted by Betty. Stroking Oscar’s head gently, she assured Betty that she wished to continue to rent the apartment and live there on her own. She would get rid of the grand piano as she had no use for it.
Sweet violin music floated soothingly across the driveway.
Mrs. Boswell’s desired tranquility had been restored.