The Sunday EssayJuly 31, 2022

The Sunday Essay: My neighbour Brocky


I decided at the last minute to keep some of his things. I felt like I was kind of saving him, bringing him home with me.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustration by Daniel Ido.

There was a large full moon the morning the truck arrived. Spotlights from the top of the cab sent shadows rearing up the pink façade of the house. The driver fell into silhouette as he moved around, chains clanking and clanging against the heavy metal skip as he placed the hooks.

I’d just opened my front door to let the dogs out. I hoped they wouldn’t bark and wake the neighbours but, unusually for them when something was going on across the road, they said nothing. 

The three of us watched the ceremony in the dark, saluting the old neighbour and friend we’d all grown to care about. 

All those Friday trips we’d made to the op shops. All those knick-knacks and books, records and fabrics, cushions and curtains he loved to hand-sew, now heading to the dump.

The house would be scoured out.

The driver kept the truck running, the noise thoughtless and ordinary. 

He approached the cab, leaned in through its open door to do something, then watched the skip rise and swing onto the tray of the truck. 

He climbed into the cab, slammed the door and rolled the monster over the tiny, uneven front garden where only the roots remained of the hedge that had been shorn down to the dirt.

Once onto the road he moved the gears into second, and we watched the beam of the headlights light the way up the hill.

Bye darling, I whispered, my nose fizzing, eyes stinging. 

The dogs and I turned back into the house. 

I never got to show him the supplement I’d saved from the Auckland Star in 1969, the one from the moon landing. We’d been talking about it a few days before everything happened. 

He liked talking about the old days. My memories were those of a child, and he told me about the historic moments from his adult perspective, which was mainly about who he was shagging at the time. 

When decimal currency arrived, he was shagging the married judge. I remembered decimal currency being big and scary for my eight-year-old self in 1967. I hadn’t yet got to grips with pounds, shillings and pence and that was hard enough.

Somewhere around then, one of the Kennedys was assassinated and Brocky was shagging as many taxi drivers as he could, and I would have been in my Snow White phase. I wanted to be like her and charm the birds from the trees, my fingers, with their little bitten nails, unlike hers, branches for them to alight upon. 

I stood outside our house in my roller skates. The pavement rose at the kerb just enough to provide a slope to start from. Ignoring my father’s voice telling me I was like a bull in a china shop, I’d glide along the path the way she would if she’d had roller skates, lifting my finger for any passing bird that cared to alight. 

It wasn’t the prince that drew my attention, or the wicked step-mother, or even the seven dwarfs. It was the woodland animals – the timid deer, the squirrels, the skunks, the squat little birds that trusted her.

The Beatles were around in those years. They were all raving homosexuals as far as Brocky was concerned. We had both watched them on the television news, maybe even at the same moment, him in his house only a few kilometres away from me in my family’s rented accommodation at 24 Onslow Road, a mere spit from Eden Park. 

I didn’t know then that I would march those streets around Eden Park in protest at the ’81 Springbok tour, that I would join thousands of New Zealanders demanding an end to apartheid in South Africa. 

My first wash of political awakening happened at 21 in the back garden at Wiremu Street, while sunbathing and listening to the radio. A man came on and said the Black people of South Africa thanked New Zealanders for protesting against apartheid by trying to stop the tour. 

A switch went on. I’d seen apartheid the year our family lived in Durban when I was eleven. Now, I registered the meaning of political action.

Brocky never had an awakening. He never changed his mind about sport and politics, but we were in sync in the 60s, singing along to the Beatles, me with Snow White, and Brocky with …well, I forget the details.

My main interest in the Beatles were the teenage girls that followed them, crying, pulling their hair and fainting at concerts or clinging to wire fencing at airports. It horrified me that this is what being a teenager would mean for me, that I would no longer be myself, but possessed, pulling my hair and screaming when singers came to town.  

The neighbours, Keith and Jo, had a niece around my age that came to stay occasionally. Sitting in the tree in our backyard she told me a secret: Keith and Jo weren’t married. They were living in sin, we agreed, horrified and excited, though unsure what it meant. 

Keith and Jo offered to take us to the pictures the next day to see a Beatles documentary, Help! I didn’t mention the secret to my parents. I was sure I wouldn’t be allowed to go, or to go over ever again to play with their three poodles, Deanne, Lisa and Chanel, if they found out. The documentary went on and on. I squirmed in my seat and couldn’t wait to go home. Brocky said the ticket was wasted on me. 

The skip to cart away Brocky’s stuff had almost arrived a few days earlier. They took it to the wrong house and ended up taking it away. 

I had decided against having anything from his house but changed my mind when it was about to be thrown away forever, and scooted over, collecting the things I had wondered about – a couple of heaters, a small coffee table made of pretend books, a picture with primary colours, a tray from under the house, one of the peacock chairs. 

I felt like I was kind of saving him, bringing him home with me. 

One of the new neighbours was coming out of his gate as I crossed the road back and forth with bits and pieces. Brocky would have loved to ogle over him and the two other fine male specimens that had just moved in. 

They’d moved in too late to make his day.

I’d let him know at the hospital that I’d seen them through the windows making dinner in the kitchen, that there were three of them. There wasn’t much else to tell him, so that was the best I could do, and it was the kind of thing he’d want to know. 

He’d always collected trivia from the street and what he didn’t know, he made up. It had been his hobby for years. He’d stand at his gate being a nosey-parker, looking up and down the street, imagining he knew people and judging them for what he imagined they were like. Once we’d become friendly, I couldn’t shut him up. 

He looked like death warmed up even then, at 67. He was skeletal, and super-brown from spending as much time as was humanly possible toasting, near-naked, in the sun.

It didn’t seem that long ago now. 

I went to close his door for the very last time. 

Bye darling, I said, leaning into the empty house. I waited for his reply.

BYE darling, I shouted.  

I shut the door, shocked all over again. 

I’d promised I’d be around for the end, make sure he didn’t go anywhere he didn’t want to go and if he wanted to be at home, somehow, we’d make that happen.

He got things the way he wanted, more or less.

I called the ambulance on the Wednesday. We’d planned it on the Tuesday. He didn’t want to go in on Tuesday because it was already afternoon and he was worn out. By the time they got him into a ward it would be midnight, and he wouldn’t manage such a long time in the emergency department. 

He agreed he needed some input, someone to take care of everything. 

Let’s see if we can get you built up again, like last year, I’d said. Then you can come home, or, if you feel like it, you might want to try somewhere for a few days. If you don’t like it, I’ll bring you home and we’ll get people in. 

On Wednesday, nine o’clock, he was sitting on his throne in the atrium in the middle of his house. 

How are you feeling? I asked. 

All right.

Do you want to go ahead with what we talked about?

May as well.

He was never one to express emotion.

I phoned the ambulance. The dispatcher decided a registered nurse should ring to check things out.

We waited. If they wouldn’t come, what did he want to do? Would he allow me to take him to the doctor? He’d been avoiding Dr Young for over a year, convinced he couldn’t offer him anything. 

No, he said.

The nurse rang and spoke with him, then me. The ambulance would not be coming. You can take him to the doctorm she said. 

While she was on the phone, Brocky agreed.

I rang Dr Young’s surgery. They couldn’t see him until early afternoon. I made the appointment.

At 1pm I rang Brocky to check that he was ready. I knew what he would say. 

He’s too tired, he’s saying he can’t be bothered, I told the receptionist. 

The next morning, I rang the practice and spoke to the nurse. He needs some help, I told her. I don’t care that Easter is upon us, something needs to happen. 

An urgent referral would be sent through to some service or other. They’d get in touch. 

I didn’t see him sitting up under his own steam after that. 

I took food over. He didn’t want it, didn’t like my cooking, didn’t want Meals on Wheels. He didn’t eat the raspberry slice I’d taken over. He promised he’d been eating and drinking.

How much are you peeing? I asked. 

Not much. 

How much? 

A bit’s leaking out. It’s hard to tell. 

What are you eating? 

Don’t go on about it. 

I’m not going on about it, I’m trying to care for you. 

I’m having enough. Tinned stuff.

By Sunday, no one had rung. 

I took over hot porridge. 

He let me prop his pillows behind him and ate keenly. 

I’d normally have twice this amount, he said. 

I’ll go and do some more. 

No. This’ll do.

At 4pm I went back over. Did you have lunch? 


What did you have? 

Tinned stuff. 

What about your peeing and pooing? 

Not doing much pooing cos I’m eating less than usual.

No, he wouldn’t eat if I made him some dinner. He didn’t need much food because he wasn’t doing anything.

I came home, unsettled, my stomach churning. 

I rang Auckland Hospital. The woman that took the call didn’t know who to put me through to, then suggested a free helpline. 

I called them. Someone from a rapid response team called me back. Kay, her name was. She got it immediately and was puzzled why the ambulance hadn’t come a few days earlier.

By the time Kay arrived, it was dark. 

I’d warned her of the squalor. 

It had been that way for the whole 15 years I’d known him. I’d warned her of how he wouldn’t let the weekly cleaner I’d organised into his bedroom, or let the poor man clean the rest of the house, except for the toilet. I’d told her how my shoes stuck to the bedroom floor, about the time I thought I’d dropped my phone into one of the piles and an involuntary scream had emitted from my throat. Luckily the phone had landed on a clean plastic bag and not in a terrible soup from which it could not have been resurrected. 

She’d prepared with a gown, gloves.

She was lovely with him, getting on-side immediately, complimenting him on the finer aspects of the house. The beautiful embossed wallpaper from the 60s that he’d put up himself, the original coal range in the kitchen, the Crown Lynn pottery and the ornaments that had come from our op shop trips. 

As they discussed his treasures, he managed to hint at a few of his conquests, swelling with pride at a life enjoyably lived. His self-esteem, which had taken such a battering of late, restored. 

With the ease of someone calling for a takeaway delivery, Kay called the ambulance, popping outside to fill them in on the more delicate matters while Brocky positively shone in the dim light from the bedside lamp.

The two young ambo guys that turned up had been sufficiently warned and stood on the kerb putting on protective gear under the streetlight. 

Eight pm on Easter Sunday night – that part isn’t what Brocky wanted.  

When they lifted him from the bed and onto the upright stretcher, the stench was unrecognisable. 

I would never have got him out the door and to the doctor on my own. Not now.

They took him down the front steps and out onto the road, right opposite my driveway. It was raining lightly. They swapped him onto another stretcher and he was still sitting up, more or less, while they slid him into the back of the ambulance.

One of the guys got into the ambulance with Brocky while the other placed the first stretcher onto the grass verge, wiped it down with antiseptic and took off his shoe protectors and overalls.

I haven’t seen anything this bad, he said, though the others might have – they’ve got more experience than me.

I went back to Brocky. The lights in the ambulance were startling, the inside of the vehicle sparkly and clean. 

He poked his tongue out at me. 

I poked mine back.

It’ll be all right, I said. 

He gave a nod. 

We drank each other in, our eyes shining.

Keep going!